A Question for Devout Christians Readers of this Blog

Why do mainstream Christians regard the writings of St. Paul as the word of God?  I understand how a Christian would be required to view the words of Jesus as God’s revealed truth, but why the words of Paul?

And everyone, please note that I’m trying to understand, not start a debate.  You’re all free to question the answers given if your intent is clarify those answers or clear up confusion, but anyone who dives into derision of Christians or Christianity will find their comments — for this specific thread — deleted.

This is something I do want to understand, and I want the thread to stay on track, so in pursuing that goal I’m invoking a narrow application of My blog, my rules.  Thanks for cooperating.

ADDENDUM:  I’ve clarified the question in comment 6 below, but let me do so here as well. The main question I’m asking in not why the Church decided that some humans are divinely inspired and giving us the word of God, but why Paul in particular as opposed to some other person?

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39 comments to A Question for Devout Christians Readers of this Blog

  • 1
    Justin Gilmore says:

    My boyfriend explains this to me that divine inspiration is a two way street that is collectively set. I will attempt to explain and encourage him to post to correct any errors I make but here goes!
    Divine inspiration happens not just to Paul as he sets his quill upon the parchment but also to the reader who reads his words. Therefore it is clear to those that have shared in the same salvation those writings that are correct in their reporting of the salvation history.
    So its a subjective value call that has no objective answer. Clearly my boyfriend believes deeply in individual understandings of Jesus and salvation because it his conviction that everyone’s individual answer equates to a great universal understanding. Or I could be entirely wrong on this matter…

  • 2
    BleakAugust says:

    I’m going to add a bit to what Justin said.  I’d like to focus first on the first sentence and specifically the concept of “divine inspiration.”  This is a key concept in looking at all of the bible as God’s word–it’s part of the work of the Holy Spirit, hence “spiration.”  One of the interesting things with Paul’s letters and what makes them important for Christians and historians is that for the most part they were written before the gospels.  These are the earliest of the NT writings that we have.  While Paul, himself, admits that he never knew Jesus as a man, he claims and is believed to have had an experience with the risen Christ–it’s that experience that leads to him being considered an apostle.
    The history of which writings made it into the canon and which ones didn’t is interesting and a bit enlightening.  The various apocryphal or non-canonic gospel texts and other letters of early church people and even Paul exist or have existed and are not considered as parts of divinely inspired scripture.  We know from text criticism of some of Paul’s letters that there were other letters that he wrote that were not kept by the community—what this means is it isn’t necessarily a function of who is writing the text that made them holy—otherwise, everything that Paul wrote should have been considered as sacred and kept in use by the communities.
    I think I’ll stop with that.  If you have any other questions or want some suggestions for other reading on the subject, I might be able to help out; just let me know.

  • 3
    Bonefish says:

    Based on my understanding from my Catholic upbringing, it does have to do with “divine inspiration” (as #1 pointed out).  If I remember right, any book that was approved as biblical canon is seen as the word of God, regardless of who wrote it: the human authors of biblical work were simply scribes for God.  If it’s in the bible, then, it’s as much the word of God as anything Jesus said according to these rules.
    Although I can’t remember how something is approved as biblical canon (does it have something to do with the two Vatican councils?), or if there even is a formal process for it.  Also, what I do know is from a Roman Catholic perspective.  Each Christian group (including subsets of Catholocism) has a different version of the bible, and I’m not sure if they equally differ over whether the “entire” thing is the word of god.

  • 4
    clayton says:

         My understanding was simply that the entire Bible is supposed to be the divine word of God.  Those books that were believed to be divinely inspired became the biblican canon.  Those works which were not divinely inspired became apocrypha. Paul is divinely inspired because he’s in the Bible, and he’s in the Bible because he’s divinely inspired.  I admit that this is a circular argument, but in the realm of religion, circular arguments abound: Jesus loves me, Yes, I know, ’cause the Bible tells me so!
         This, basically, is the conundrum of religious faith.  A faith tradition consists of people who agree to hold to a certain core of beliefs that cannot be objectively proven.  If those beliefs could be objectively proven, there would be no need to have faith, because then the followers would have knowledge instead.  That is why biblical literalists–such as creationists–have always seemed so wrongheaded to me, and have always seemed to be protesting too much, and ultimately revealing their own lack of faith.
         Am I arguing that all religious faith is wrongheaded, or a belief in nothing?  Far from it.  I think that strong faith in a religious tradition is a beautiful thing.  The problem–in my view–comes when people believe their faith is the one true religion, and that there is no room for doubt or disagreement.  I think a healthy, self-questioning doubt is just as beautiful a trait as a strong faith, and ultimately its necessary complement.
         As I write this, I am doing a bit of web-surfing, and finding that many sites that document the process of determining the canon describe the books in the New Testament as “authoritative” rather than “inspired” (and boy is there a whole lot of difference between those two adjectives!), but here are some sites that represents the view I cited above: that the entire bible is the divine word of God.  Obviouslty, that includes the books of St. Paul:
         And for a site that looks at the history in a respectful, but more secular manner–one which acknowledges that the process of forming the canon was a messy, contentious very human affair rather than a simple matter of agreeing which books had divine ispiration, see this: http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/NTcanon.html

  • 5
    Ali says:

    The impression I’ve always been given by my church leaders (largely Church of England, which generally runs a bit more conservative than the US episcopal church, unfortunately) is that we’re supposed to see it as Paul and the others being ‘scribes’ for God’s own words, and more as God gives them the concept of what they write. So for Paul, God as Holy Spirit has given him knowledge, ‘inspired’ him to write about particular ideas, and then he records it in his own words. This matches in with the way the old testament prophets were given visions, which they then recorded from their perspective.
    To what degree I as a Christian subscribe to this, I don’t know. But I do find this view useful, as it explains to me how Paul could learn so much about the gospel, but then filter it through his previous experience and views and come out with things like the passage in Romans 1 describing male or female gay relationships as unnatural, which I utterly don’t believe to be word for word what Jesus might say on the subject.

  • 6
    robtish says:

    I’ll need to clarify the question.  I’m not asking why Christians have viewed some people as scribes for God — well, actually, I am, to some degree, but that’s not the main issue.

    The main issue I’m curious about is:  why Paul?  There must have been many people who never met Jesus writing about Jesus, so why is Paul in particular considered divinely inspired?

    It’s clear that this breaks down into two questions:

    1.  What is the theological justification for considering Paul divinely inspired?

    2.  What was the practical, real-world, messy, human process by which the early Church fathers decided that Paul was not merely wise, but divinely inspired?

    Thanks for the answers so far, and for the links as well.

  • 7
    SNC says:

    Hi Rob,
    I am embarrassed to admit that I do not know the answers to your questions. For what it is worth, I was raised Catholic and am now Protestant, and I don’t know that I’d ever been taught that Paul was, in particular, “divinely inspired.” And, indeed, I must just repel literalists, but I don’t recall anyone suggesting that “divinely inspired” meant the authors of the Bible were God’s (infallible) transcriptionists.
    One of the things I am continually fascinated by is how different the Bible reads when one considers both the time in which pieces were written and the audiences for which they were written (which vary, of course).
    You might be interested in the scholarly work of John Dominic Crossan, who specializes in “the historical Jesus,” and who has co-authored two books about Paul, which include tackling the question of which “Pauline” writings seem likely to have actually been written by Paul and which are likely to have been authored by others.
    For what it’s worth, whenever I run across a piece of Scripture, from Paul or from others, that seems inconsistent with my understanding of the Gospel message, I go back to what is written of Jesus and attributed to Jesus. What does the example of Christ–with its radical inclusivity and uncomfortable challenges to those with power, respect and money–tell me about this passage and its meaning for me and how I live? I cannot say that is a cure-all for difficult passages, but it helps.

  • 8
    mikenola says:

    I think a bit more background will help clear out the cobwebs on this one.
    Paul, a.k.a. Paul of Tarsus, was actually pretty much a hated man by the Jews who started worshiping Christ. According to his ‘history’ sometime around A.D. 34 he headed to Damascus from Jeruseleum to continue in his quest to stamp out those christ loving jews.
    His conversion to a follower and adherent of Christs teachings happened after he met James, the reputed brother of Jesus after having a vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus.
    He was an exceptionally conservative and somewhat rabid adherent of Christ after his vision.
    The writings attributed to Paul are called the Pauline Epistles and comprise 13 books (or 14 books depending on who you believe) in the New Testament. Most of the theological types say that most of them are written by Paul or with Paul as there are some discrepencies in structure between the “known/verified” books and the suspects ones.
    As for why he is considered authoritative, he was a prodigous writer and almost through shear will and volume of writings made himself a cult of personality, a circumsized Sarah Palin if you will.
    As one of the Apostles he had an “inside” track to the teachings of Jesus, and with the volume of his writings he was a “natural” inclusion into the “bible”, he actually wrote a good chunk of it.
    The Holy Roman Church at some point glommed onto his excessively conservative views/writings/opinoins and incorporated them into what has evolved into modern christian acceptance that he is a font of christian wisdom and rules.
    Add to that a church teaching that the bible is ineffable across time and language and what you get is this concept that the writings are by “divine inspiration”, which is a convenient way to say “I’m right because God told me I’m right, and you know I am right because I am telling you God told me I’m right”. 
    An odd bit of lore about Paul of Tarsus is that he is credited in some circles for getting the church to not enforce circumsicion requirement of the jewish faith. Oddly most of Europe, the Middle East, East, Africa and Austraila don’t practice circumsicion, but here in America someone managed to get the idea tied to Christ, not as a Jew but as a Christian, and since supposedly Christ was cut then all American Christians were supposed to be like him and get cut.Then add in the “health sciences:” of the time and you get our national norm of circumsicion at birth, but don’t say it is a Jewish Thing or the rabid right wingers heads implode.
    Paul was not at the last supper but is considered an apostle anyway, this bit of sophistry is continually taught in christian lore even today.
    So the shortest answer to your question is “just because we have always believed he was divinely inspired”; there is no one or two specific facts that delineate him as the mouthpiece of God.
    btw, from an academic perspective, Paul of Tarsus is an interesting, if creepy, person to learn about. Its a fascination akin to learning about Hitler….makes the skin crawl but interesting none the less.

  • 9
    mikenola says:

    sorry about the missing formatting and spell check… typing in a hurry…duh!

  • 10
    Neil says:

    On question 1, Paul would be included due to the authority conferred on him by Peter (2Peter 3:15):
    And account that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation; even as our beloved brother Paul also according to the wisdom given unto him hath written unto you;
    Inclusion in the canon, by my understanding, is determined by virtue of being considered a prophet, apostle or having a special relationship to either or both.  Paul was declared an apostle in his own right but even if he hadn’t been, I expect the endorsement from Peter would be authoritative enough to grant his inclusion.
    That possibly answers question 2 to some extent also. Paul comes with excellent apostolic references. I would say the messy, human process of bringing about a theological unity derives in large part from the requirement of Emperor Constantine to bring coherence to the newly instituted state religion of Rome. After he sponsored the Council of Nicea a number of such convocations followed during the 4th and 5th Centuries to establish Biblical Canon.
    Paul, being such a mainstream figure in the development of the early church, would be an obvious candidate for inclusion in the Bible. But then there’s some dispute about his authorship of a number of the epistles attributed to him. I have the impression works were attributed where it was thought appropriate and included to afford the NT self consistency: a sort of 4th/5th Century Church group-think.

  • 11
    DN says:

    You might find these useful about how writings become Scripture (from specific to general):
    As to why Paul, it might be less that Paul was chosen by the Church than that the followers of Paul happened to survive in greater numbers than other groups for various reasons and then ended up making up the majority of the early Church.
    These articles might shed some light on early church history and politics:

  • 12
    Fred says:

    To answer Rob’s second question, Paul was instrumental in making Christianity a religion for Gentiles not just for the Jews. Without Paul most Christians would never have become Christians. For a Christian of non-Jewish descent to question the authority of Paul is to risk questioning whether they are able to be a Christian at all.

  • 13
    JP says:

    As a christian, one thing I always struggle with is that christians, as a whole, believe the bible is inerrant. I just don’t believe this. It is mostly based on John 1:1, where jesus states he is the word, and the word was God, and the word was with God. But that doesn’t mean literally, “this book that we call the bible”. I think it’s a far reach to say the bible is completely perfect. I do believe it was “holy” inspired, but that’s why context is so important. That’s where christianity has fallen in regards to how it treats others. It is used too literally, and righteous judgement has so easily become self righteous judgement. But of course, I’m also completely discounted because I am a gay christian. Go figure. 

  • 14
    The_L says:

    A lot of the reason Paul was chosen has to do with early-church politics.
    Basically in the first century, you had the Gnostics, the Marionites, and about 20 other different churches.  Each one had a different dogma, each one had a different Bible.  The Paulines are the ones who lucked out and got imperial support from Rome.  So they won.  Therefore, Paul is canon.

  • 15
    Jess says:

    I haven’t read any of the comments here, just adding my opinion to the pile.  I don’t honestly think the entire Bible is the inerrent word of God.  Some parts were written to a specific people at a specific time with a specific problem, The letters of Paul mostly fall under this category for me.  Romans is an exceptions, but even there, you have to read it through the lense of the culture he was living in.  The Bible is a wonderful book that strengthens my faith, but If I tried to believe every word is absolutely true no matter what I’d go insane.  I understand that the Bible was put together by men, and as such is likely to contain mistakes.  But this just comes from a 26 year old Lutheran University graduate (2009) And I haven’t read over my theology books since graduation, so my explanation is a bit fuzzy.

  • 16
    BleakAugust says:

    If you’ll forgive the use of a very long quote, I’ll try and shape up some of the “why Paul” question.  This comes from Luke Timothy Johnson’s book, The Writings of the New Testament.  It’s a very good introduction to the NT by Catholic scholar.  His introduction to the section on Paul (pgs. 259-260) is helpful here and will, I think, echo some of the questions that are in your mind—unfortunately the answers you seek may not be there—it opens with the following paragraph,
    “The Christian movement found its first and most vivid voice in the letters of the apostle Paul.  The evangelists remained anonymous behind their shaping of Jesus’ story.  Paul’s letters, by contrast, reveal a human personality so forcibly yet with such great complexity that, for some, coming to grips with Christianity means first of all coming to grips with Paul.”
    On page 260 Johnson explains the complexity of Paul and studying him—this is where it’ll get long,
    “Much of the history of the interpretation of Paul has consisted in construing one part of his multifaceted literary presentation as the whole.  More often than not, this results from treating him as a thinker or theologian who had a center to his system.  But Paul was first of all a founder and pastor of churches.  His thought was forged on anvils of various controversies and needs, some personal, some communal; and his thought was given expression in his letters through a complex process of composition.
    Every construal of Paul requires decisions on certain basic questions.  The first is:  Where is the real Paul?  Some decision must be made from the beginning concerning the weight to be accorded the treatment of Paul in Acts and in the letters.  And once that is done, a harder issue still remains:  Which of the letters traditionally attributed to Paul are written by him and which by his followers? ….Furthermore, even those letters acknowledged as authentic look quite different, depending on how they are read:  in continuity with the presentation of Acts and the Pastorals; or in isolation from the developments of the Pauline tradition, often regarded largely as a betrayal of Paul himself.
    A second major issue concerns Paul’s historical importance for earliest Christianity.  Does the dominance given him in the NT canon reflect historical reality or a theological decision?  Was Paul the most important of the missionaries to the Gentiles, or only the one whose writings happened to be preserved?  Did his influence die out quickly, or was it still active in radical and conservative forms throughout the second century?  Decision concerning the authentic and inauthentic letters, and the way to understand a Pauline “school,” are important for that discussion.
    A third issue concerns Paul’s religious significance.  What is the relation between Jesus and Paul?  Is Paul a solitary religious genius, the second founder of Christianity, or is he a man of tradition, the heir to, and transmitter of, a communal understanding?  Does Paul fundamentally pervert the message of Jesus, or does he faithfully interpret it for changed circumstances?  Is Paul the heart of the NT canon?  If so, why?  And if so, which Paul?”
    Basically, this whole long quote is say that the issues you are raising are still being debated by scripture scholars working with the various texts of the NT and new knowledge that gleaned from the various historical and cultural studies that are also being done on the region and time.
    In terms of Divine inspiration for the letters and for scripture in general, I would like to urge caution in thinking that those who actually put pen to paper were simply scribes taking dictation from God.  Certainly this has been a view in the past, but very few scholars today would hold to such a notion.  The writers were shaped so much more by their culture and specific situation to believe such.  I think an artist could explain the concept a bit better—but it would be something like when you are working on a piece of writing and you struggle to just get some words down on paper—the writing happens and it’s a workable piece—but then you go for a walk and have a conversation with Will and something you hear strikes you so that you have new thoughts and a totally new shape for what you just wrote—you return and re-work the piece and it seems so much more perfect.  I would like to think that you would attribute some of the success of the new piece to the inspiration you received from the conversation you had with Will.  Certainly your writing skill had a major part in the piece, but could you honestly say the piece would be the same had you not had that interaction with Will?  How much do you then attribute to Will?  Now back to the point at hand, for scripture the writers, in my understanding, had a relationship with the Divine either in the form of God the creator or Jesus as Son of God—and that experience shaped how they wrote the particular stories or letters that they wrote.  What gets tricky and hard is that at some point—around the second century—a decision was made to judge which writings could be said to have been shaped by such and experience and which ones couldn’t.  Does that mean that it doesn’t happen to people now?  It doesn’t make sense, but that’s what we’re left with.  Sometimes we are left with the fact that the reading of such texts is the encounter with the divine that should shape our lives—but I haven’t been shaped by everything that I read in scripture—it’s just not all working.
    This is too long again and I apologize for not really giving you a simple answer to your questions?  The more I study this stuff the more I loose in terms of answers.  One of the things that has happened with religion is that a vast majority of people want simple answers and the leaders have found that if they give those answers the people will take them and then also accept all the other things that the leaders say. 

  • 17
    clayton says:

    Thanks for posing a question that …ahem…inspired so many thoughtful responses.

  • 18
    Michael White says:

    As a former monk with a MA in theology, I will take a stab.  The Letters of Paul et. al., were written to encourage the new Communities who were reflecting on their experience of Jesus and his life/death.  Without going into details we can only speculate about, somthing about Jesus and his activities had a tremendous effect on people. Whether is was his teachings, miracles or personality people were drawn to worship God in a new way. Paul wrote to encourage the new communities; correct incorrect thoughts and practices. There were many “gospels”which did not make it into the canon of scripture. Why? The community of believers reflected on these various writings. Many were rejected because they did not reflect the communities experince of Jesus and were rejected as not divinely inspired, eg. Gospel of Thomas. Paul’s letters were accepted by the community as authentic explanations and elaboration of Jeus’ teaching.  For example, the wriitng on Charity in 1st Corinthians.  This was the communities experience of Jesus’ unselfish love, a love focused on others not on self. Paul’s frequent calls to reform and to focus on others not self reflect Jesus’ teaching. This is why his writings are considered Scripture. A commentary on his sexual mores is for another post.

  • 19
    robtish says:

    I LOVE THIS!  Thanks everyone for their responses (and feel free to add more). I haven’t had time yet to digest them all, but let me tell you why I care.

    There is no record of Jesus speaking out against homosexuality.  Paul, of course, is more controversial (though even there, his practice of using a word that appears no where else — am I right on that? — makes interpretation difficult).

    I can understand why people might believe that Jesus is divine, with teachings that must be followed. (I’m not saying I agree, or that the reasons I can imagine are entirely rational).  But why Paul?  It’s a bit like this:  “I get that you’re a Christian.  I don’t get why that means you have to obey some guy named Paul.”

    I’ve never actually said that in discussion/debate. I doubt it would shake anyone’s Biblically-based opposition to homosexuality.  But the fact remains that I can’t answer the question, and I think it’s important to my own understanding that I be able to articulate my opponents’ views in terms that they would agree with.  That’s the only way of avoiding caricature and straw men.

    I’m not there yet with Paul.  But thanks for help, and perhaps eventually I will be.

  • 20
    Jim Stone says:

    Great topic Rob!  I have always wondered the same thing…
    It is refreshing to see people on your blog actually using the brains that they were given and questioning.  I have never understood “blind faith”…believing something just because you were told to by someone else without thinking about it AND questioning.  I know the world would be a much better place if humans used their brains and formed their own conclusions after examining all of the evidence and using logic…  I know the world would be a much better place for the LGBT community if this were to happen…

  • 21
    Chip says:

    I really don’t have that much to add to the discussion, but I thought I’d give what insight I can that won’t be totally repetitive:
    A good many conservative Christians (especially of the fundamentalist variety) use Paul’s own words to Timothy as a guideline here: “All scripture is inspired of God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, fully equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). To these reading eyes, such a passage somehow proves that all of the Bible in its current form is the inerrant word of God. A smaller number Christians, myself included, realize in light of the church’s history that Paul was specifically referring to the Hebrew Scriptures (what we today would call the Old Testament), since no other “New Testament” writings existed in Paul’s time — and I seriously doubt that Paul as a mere man would have the prescience to see his own writings included as part of the Christian Scriptures!
    Also Rob, if you’re interested in that strange word Paul used in two of his writings, I would recommend you check out this page from a group of dedicated Biblical scholars to gain some understanding:
    Though to be safe, since the article also makes reference to the other pages of the website, I would recommend also perusing their article “Same-Sex Marriage in the Bible,” at a minimum, to fully place the above link’s content into context. I know from first-hand experience that this page alone is enough to make anti-gay theologians’ heads explode with rage:

  • 22
    SNC says:

    Hi Rob,
    I, too, have found this interesting. A few more resources:
    Mel White’s long, but very nicely done, take on issues of homosexuality in the Bible:
    Gene Robinson also wrote a whole series of pieces for the Washington Post about that, which might interest you:
    As I recall, he does a good job of dealing with language and context issues.

  • 23
    clayton says:

    I’m at home and the books and notes I have on this topic are elsewhere–actually, two or three elsewheres–so I am writing from an admittedly faulty memory, but if I get down the outlines, I have no doubt that some of your readers will correct my record (and, Readers, if you can correct me, please do!).
    Early Christian leaders were heavily influenced by Stoicism, and the Stoics preached that one should be equally indifferent to both pleasure and pain, as pleasure was a nail that fixed one’s soul to the earth and kept one from thinking of more important mattters–like God.  In about the 5th century (if memory serves–again–I welcome corrections) a monk named Telemachus went to a gladiator’s competition and tried to halt it, telling the crowd that the competition was a worldly distraction and that they should go home to concentrate on prayer, instead.  Can you imagine what would happen if a monk showed up at the Superbowl and told people that he was cancelling the event for the good of their souls?  Well, basically the same thing happened to Telemachus: the angry crowd stoned him to death.  As a result, the Roman leaders (who, by this time, were converts to Christianity) cancelled all public entertainments of any kind.  Hence, public sporting events–and drama–disappeared for the next 500 years.
       You can see why a church influenced by Stoicism would find Paul an appealing figure.  Paul was anti-sex, and therefore, in a most fundamental sense, anti-pleasure.  Even the love one would have for a spouse was suspect, for that love would be more properly channeled into a spiritual love for God, or at least a disinterested love of fellow man.  In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul clearly sets out a spiritual hierarchy in which people like himself (the unmarried and celibate) are at the top, followed by people who married but who are able to remain celibate within marriage, followed by people who enter marriage and use the institution in order to contain their lust (It is better to marry than to burn!), followed by people at the bottom, who are both unmarried and uncelibate.
    Figures such as St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas were anti-sex (and anti-pleasure) in ways similar to Paul, and even today the Catholic Church shows its veneration of celibacy by making it a (widely broken) requirement for holy orders.  In fact, in my twelve years of Catholic schooling, I was told countless times that the celibacy requirement was necessary because it freed the clergy from thinking about worldly things (like husbands, wives, children and sex) in order to free them to think about spiritual things.

  • 24
    BleakAugust says:

    Rob, I did a little more digging around in the library on your question.  A couple years ago the Catholic church dedicated a whole year to St Paul.  Pope Benedict gave a series of Wednesday lectures on Paul and his importance—they can be found on the Vatican website under the Pope’s audiences for years 2008-2009.  Ultimately, however, he does not really answer your question as to why the church turned to Paul and placed him above the other apostles and early church leaders.  The final audience alludes to the fact that we know more about the “figure” of Paul than the actual man, but it goes on to say that we do know that the writing attributed to him were included early into the liturgy of the church—the typical order of readings for a Christian liturgy of the word is OT, NT epistle, and Gospel.  Since these writings were incorporated into the communal prayer of the Church they also shaped the communal belief of the church—a concept known as lex orandi, lex credenda—what you pray is what you believe. 
    Say what you will about Benedict’s teachings on morality and his policies, but in terms of biblical scholarship he’s pretty thorough—I’d say if that anal German couldn’t answer the question or chooses not to—the answer isn’t there to be found.

  • 25
    Bilstr says:

    Fascinating discussion – more questions Rob, please.
    Two details not mentioned (or maybe not noticed):
    1/ Paul’s biggest condemnations of homosexuality are in Corinthians where he was preaching from a bema in the old city within sight of the Temple of Aphrodite high on the Acrocorinth where temple prostitutes, priests and priestesses, were common.  His aversion today appears to be against any homosexual activity, but may have been focused on one particular brand of pagan worship.
    2/Augustine (and many other 5th century theologians) who were anti-sex were a bit like modern politicians – before they were for celibacy they were against it.  Augustine led a libertine young man’s life.  I don’t recall where it’s recorded but one of his prayers includes the phrase “Lord, give me chastity, but not yet”.
    Monotheism has always been badly conflicted about sex and remains so.  The details of the conflicts change, but they haven’t figured it out yet.

  • 26
    BleakAugust says:

    You bring up an interesting point about monotheism.  Why do you think it has such a problem with sex?  What is it about being monotheistic that creates such an attitude in the follower?  You really can see the struggles with it when you delve deeply into the Torah.  I’m wondering how much metaphor and language really shapes our beliefs?  In trying to explain the way humans are to relate to the divine they had to use the language of human relationships so the monotheist had to be true to one diety, so the human language had to reflect that truth and then it became the way of not only describing the relationship between human and divine but became the standard for the relationships between people.  Long convuluted sentence I know, but it does–well, it makes me wonder.
    I would caution you a little on your first point, however.  These are letters to the Corintian community–in essence we have the second half of a correspondence since Paul is always responding to what he has eiter recieved from or heard about the Christian community he founded in the city.  We know that the first letter was written while Paul was in Ephesus.  I don’t know off the top of my head where the second letter was composed.
    Thanks for your contribution to the discussion.

  • 27
    BleakAugust says:

    OK, this is the last one I promise.  It’s just we got a little into this last night in my Christology class and it started to make sense. 
    Paul was a Jew, but, and this is the point of the answer, he was from the diaspora and not Jerusalem.  It’s all about enculturation.  This makes the fact that his writings are being used in the culture wars all the more interesting.  Here’s how it all worked.  The main followers of Jesus were Jews and they were headquartered in Jerusalem.  It was a Jewish sect centered in the main city for Jews of the time.  Paul, while being Jewish, was from outside of Jerusalem and educated and heavily influenced by the Hellenistic culture of the time.  Paul claims to have an encounter with the risen Christ and then wants to help spread Christianity to all.  The first major argument in the church was all about whether or not one needed to become Jewish first in order to then become Christian.  The easy answer based upon what Jesus did and said would have been, “Of course you need to be a Jew!”  But the early church did not go that way and they agreed with Peter and Paul—Peter was actually the first to bring Gentiles into Christianity. 
    Now, there happens to be an interesting confluence of history and theology that happens at the time that solidifies the shift from primary Jewish Christianity to a more Hellenistic Christianity that was pushed by Paul.  A revolt started in Jerusalem around the year 67.  The Romans decide to send in the full force of their army and put an end to it once and for all around the year 70.  A call goes out essentially saying that all the Jewish men need to come and defend the walls of the city.  The Christians look out and see the big force of the army and decide they are not Jewish, they are Christian.  This starts the big rift between Christians and Jews—the whole destruction of the temple and expulsion of Christians from the synagogues.
    So, essentially, the answer to why Paul is that he was a Greek speaking Jew of the Diaspora.  Because of this he was able to uniquely translate the Jewish essentials of Christianity and make them understandable to the Hellenistic people to whom he preached. 
    Perhaps it doesn’t make as much sense the way that I explain it.  If so, I’m sorry.  Anyway, that’s the final attempt for me.  Thanks again for the good question.
    The professor made a few interesting points about how interesting it is that the early church really didn’t have a problem with culture and adapting to a new culture.  He also pointed out that an odd little thing about Christianity through the years has been that in explaining itself, it has always opted for the explanations that make the least sense.  All the people who were named heretics could logically explain everything, the orthodox couldn’t.  All the orthodox could do is say that the heretical explanation somehow got a point wrong.  Taking the above culture conflict between Judaism and Hellenism in Christianity for example, there was a guy named Marcion who wanted to go fully Hellenistic in his explanation of God—well, a Hellenistic God in the line of Platonic thought of the time would not do half the things that God did in the Old Testament, so Marcion said we should just do away with that part of scripture.  The church didn’t agree and said we need to keep the stories from the Old Testament even when they had a concept of a God who was unchanging and removed from all human concerns.  OK. Now I’m done.

  • 28
    Michael Kjar says:

    Many New Testament scholars, based on textual analysis and other methods, do not believe Paul wrote all the epistles attributed to him.  Bart Ehrman’s taped lectures (NT scholar at UNC Chapel Hill), is where I learned a great deal about the historical Jesus and about the early church.  Ehrman has also been featured in interviews on NPR’s Fresh Air.  He started his life as an evangelical Christian but now calls himself a happy agnostic, so most believers try to discredit him, despite his rigorous scholarship.
    One thing Ehrman stresses is that the epistles were written to specific churches regarding specific problems, the details of which are unknown.  So we don’t really have the complete context of why he (or the other writers) wrote what they did.
    Canonization of books of the New Testament happened many years after they were written by a church council.  Most importantly, we have no original manuscripts, but copies of copies of copies, into which many errors, intentional and unintentional, crept.
    Because of Paul’s huge influence on the early church, some have said that the Christianity that is practiced today could be called “Pauline Christianity,” since without his views, the Church would have evolved very differently or perhaps not survived at all.

  • 29
    Kamerad says:

    Jesus Christ builds His church on His Word spoken through the prophets:
    Ephesians 2:19-20 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God,built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone…)
    And the apostles ( Acts 1:8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”)
    Paul was chosen by Christ to be one of His apostles that would serve this purpose, being likened to a foundation stone upon which the church is built: Revelation 21:14 And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.
    This is a work of God. This was recognized by the earliest Christians and Paul and his Epistles (letters) have been accepted as apostolic ever since. This occurred WAY BEFORE any councils ever met! (1st century AD)

  • 30
    robtish says:

    Thanks Kamerad, but while this explains THAT you believe Paul was chosen to be His apostle, is does not tell me WHY you believe it, or why the earliest Christians believed it.

  • 31
    kamerad says:

    WHY we believe this is because the Holy Spirit has opened our ears to hear the truth that God chose Paul as one of the apostles upon which He would build the church. This truth is revealed in those passages listed above and others as well, such as Romans 1:1 “Paul,a servantof Christ Jesus,called to be an apostle,set apart for the gospel of God, 2which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures,…”
    It IS interesting that so much of the New Testament is “Pauline.”  Perhaps a reason God arranged this situation is that Paul was the apostle to the gentiles. Most Christians through the last two thousand years have been of gentile origin -not Hebrew (or Jewish either)- so the writings of the “gentile Apostle” would be most valuable to them. The Hebrews got their own epistle (Hebrews) and Gospel (Matthew) which build on things from their perspective and are very different in character than Paul’s writings. In addition to that, Paul was the one who really nailed down the teaching on God’s grace. He was the devoutest of Hebrews – following all the laws that had been prescibed. Paul trusted in those worlks of his own to be right with God. God revealed His way of grace to Paul which changed him and the world. Paul’s writtings therefore bring bright light to a world that continues to seek God by its own methods and reason, whether Hebrew or gentile. Even homosexuals can be saved by God’s grace! Now that’s relevant for today. Go Paul!

  • 32
    robtish says:

    Not to drag this out, kamerad, but suppose someone said the Holy Spirit had opened their ears to hear the truth that God did NOT choose Paul as one of the apostles.

    How would you reply to that person?  Or, more to the point, how would you convince me that you are correct and the other person is wrong?  

    (And keep in mind that if you quote Romans 1:1 again, I’ll be forced to ask the next logical question: What evidence can you offer that Romans 1:1 is true?)

  • 33
    Kamerad says:

    My reply to the first question is, “Good for you!” :) PLease enlighten me on what other sections of the Holy Scriptures are not authentic and how you arrived at such a conclusion. (And secretly I will be praying for them to know the joy those scriptures bring.)
    My reply to you is, “I will convince you of nothing.”  
    The Bible does not seek to be proven, but taught and passed on through time. It is it’s own authority. One arrives at that understanding by the…you guessed it…Holy Spirit. It is a book people come to in faith. Faith because it does not add up or make sense according to a human point of view. I am not being trite or smug with this response – this is EXACTLY how it works. Any number of scientific and historical facts can be pointed to IN SUPPORT of the story of the Scriptures, but that won’t convince anyone. It is a work of God in our lives to come to know and trust the Scriptures as the inspired Word of God. Now – “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the Truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, God, Who is faithful and just, will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” We and our world are dying. God gives life. When we turn to Him like that last Scripture says, we will have life. You, me, all Christians and even the Saint and Apostle Paul:P  We do well to stop trying to justify ourselves before God and others by trying to avoid/downplay the writtings of Paul and simply take the blessings God has to give through His Son Jesus Christ and gladly receive the whole counsel of God.
    (Sorry I got a little “preachy” there but – YOU ASKED! haha)

  • 34
    robtish says:

    PLease enlighten me on what other sections of the Holy Scriptures are not authentic and how you arrived at such a conclusion.

    But I didn’t say anything was not authentic, not even whe I referred to Romans 1:1. There’s quite a difference between, “This is false,” and “I don’t see any evidence that this is true.” It’s an important distinction.

    We’ve come to an epistemological parting of the ways. Thanks for your extensive and thorough engagement.  

  • 35
    Russ says:

    Rob, I’m not sure I qualify as a “devout Christian” in the sense you mean, but as an Episcopalian-on-hold who at one time was fairly conversant with things, the short answer to your question is:  the early Church, as early as the second century, was trying to agree on an irreducible body of writings that were undoubtedly written by the Apostles, or at least their close associates.  Even while Paul and other apostles were still alive, people were forging their names to letters or “gospels” – and that got to be quite a cottage industry, resulting in many, many, many fake “apostolic” documents. 
    It wasn’t until some decades after Jesus was crucified that his actual disciples started writing things down – teaching depended much more on oral transmission in those days than we are accustomed to.  By the time the authentic apostles started dying off, there was a real need to get the actual teachings preserved in writing for the benefit of future generations.  And that started a long process of debate among the various Christian communities over some questionable items – but the Pauline letters were among the books that apparently had always been accepted by just about everyone as being truly from the apostolic era.
    See the links to the wikipedia articles on development of the NT canon that have already been provided above by other posters.  I’m just trying to make clear that it wasn’t that people sat down and said, Hmm, do we like this book or this letter?  It was, rather, Which letters do we know – 99% sure, at least – came straight from the Apostles themselves?  That’s the only “theological justification” that I know of for including the Pauline letters – were they written by the Apostles or not? – which your question sort of misses the point, if you see what I mean.  The Apostles were presumed to have their facts/teachings right, having gotten them straight from Jesus.  Later writings might or might not be so correct.
    Of course, Christians then and since and up to this very moment have long debated the theological *interpretations* of what Paul or others said – especially gays, to mention but one group – but that’s a different topic. 

  • 36
    Russ says:

    PS – It goes without saying that Jesus didn’t write anything himself.  Nor did he “cover all the bases” – as soon as his followers began to preach, questions arose – what about this? what about that?  The first few chapters of Acts show that there was a sort of supreme council of apostles – James, John, and Peter, if memory serves me right – who ruled on questions of doctrine and organization way back there in Jerusalem.  As time went on, the organization got more complex, and the doctrinal questions likewise.  Paul apparently was accepted as an equal, even though he wasn’t one of the original 12 – at one point he actually opposed Peter on the question of whether Christians had to follow Jewish law -and Paul’s view prevailed.  So from a very early point, Paul was regarded by the Christian communities as authoritative.  Much of his writings to various churches are attempts to clarify doctrine and “lay down the law” in matters of belief and morality. 
    So in your hypothetical discussion, there’s not much point in asking “Why if you’re a Christian do you believe what Paul said?”  Paul has been part of the mix nearly from the very start, and was the first guy to actually put things in writing.  Everything we know of what Jesus taught comes from writers other than Jesus himself.  Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean that modern Christians have to accept every single word as “gospel truth” – we’ve long since abandoned everything Paul had to say in support of slavery, for example (though it was duly quoted all over the South before the Civil War, you betcha).  And that was done without having to rewrite his words – he was just a man of his time, and he was wrong on that point.  On the other hand, he sometimes rises to glorious heights, as in the famous “Love chapter” – i.e., I Corinthians 13.  So he’s a mixed bag, but nobody else wrote nearly as much among the Apostles, so he’s a starting point.  Not necessarily the end point.

  • 37
    robtish says:

    Thanks Russ.  What then do you make of fundamentalists who insist that every word of the Bible represents the inerrant word of God — including Paul’s contribution?

  • 38
    kamerad says:

    If I may…(Sorry I have been gone) the position that the Holy Scriptures are the inerrant Word of God  is one that is held by a much wider section of Christendom than just the “Fundamentalists.” This would include, actually, the largest Christian groups in the world including the Roman Catholic church as well as the Orthodox church. Also, “every word of the Bible” for them stands for the original document in the original language. A few (yes, just a few) scribal errors have occurred through time and obviously the translations do have some issues because people translate the Bible in accordance with there theological presuppositions. The grossest example of this would be the Jehova’s Witness translation as well as others. But, in the end, this is what is behind the position on verbal inerrancy. It has been the normal stance of the majority of churches through the New Testament period. 

  • 39
    Russ says:

    Rob, as Kamerad has said, it is true that up until the Englightenment, and Darwin in the 19th century, practically all Christians were what we now call “fundamentalists.”  But even in the early centuries, both Origen and St. Augustine (who wrote a whole book on “The Literal Meaning of Genesis”) strongly derided simple-minded believers for “talking nonsense” that the creation stories in Genesis were literal, and held that Genesis was to be understood in spiritual/allegorical terms.  All that is easily Googleable if you want to find it.
    On the history of what we call fundamentalism, you can look that up on Wikipedia; you asked for my view, and it is that people who hold such beliefs are just tragically misguided, as much so as anyone who believes the earth is flat.  What we call the “mainline” Protestant churches have, for the most part, long since worked beyond such simplistic interpretations, as this Episcopalian writes at http://dailyoffice.org/home/episcopalchurch.html:
    “The Episcopal Church is not fundamentalist. We don’t shove religion down anyone’s throat. We worship God, not the Bible; there is a profound difference. One is fixed, written down, full of glorious teachings but potentially stagnant; God is alive and continues to teach us more.

    “The Bible is the incomparable divine library about God, but it was written by human beings. Episcopalians revere the Bible, use it as the supreme authority in essential matters of faith and read it more than most churches do; but we also believe in ongoing revelation—and we don’t have to rewrite our theology every time a scientist discovers something new.

    “Episcopalians have the courage and the faith to face the fact that the earth revolves around the sun, not the other way around as the Bible suggests. The Bible assumes the earth is flat. That alone should make you question fundamentalism.

    “Biblical writers didn’t know any better; telescopes hadn’t been invented yet. The Bible is not a science text, but a profound guide to faith. It doesn’t contain all the answers; but oh, the answers it contains!

    “God is not served by making ever more exacting, precise, legalistic, perfectionist demands on people through misinterpretations of the words. In fact this dishonors the living, steadfast God.”
    So you see, it is a great mistake to think that “Christianity” is synonymous with “fundamentalism,” which is what I fear many people do nowadays, especially the young,militant atheists who seem to be so vocal now.  There is a wide divergence of Christian views on practically all subjects, and without taking time to offer my own, let me point you to some expert voices, whose thoughts you may find very interesting:
    Retired Episcopal Bishop John Spong on his book, “Jesus for the Non-Religious”:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6AfFcAmx-Ro
    Bishop Spong, giving a longer exposition of his views in a lecture at Univ. of Oregon: 
    Retired Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, excerpts from his book, “God Is Not a Christian:  And Other Provocations.”

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