In my experience, progressive Christians generally have--at best--an ambivalent relationship with St. Paul. Admittedly, often it seems as if the apostle is the source of much which, from the perspective of 21st-century progressive Christiaity, seems to be problematic about soi-disant "traditional" Christianity: oppressive gender roles, prudishness about sexuality, resistance towards secular reason, and so forth.
One way some Christians (including "Jesus followers" and others who might resist the term) have navigated the issue is to try and make a distinction between the religion of Jesus and that of Paul. N.T. Wright summarizes this "old argument," en passant to refuting it, thusly: "Paul was the real founder of Christianity, misrepresenting Jesus and inventing a theology in which a 'Christ' figure, nothing really to do with the Jesus of history, becomes central." Since St. Paul thus represents in this account a corruption of the true Christian message, the Christian is thus free to ignore him to a greater or lesser degree.
There are a number of problems with this train of thought. Firstly, it is historically uninformed insofar as it assumes that the Gospel accounts of Jesus, which postdate the Pauline epistles, provide a more reliable record of the actual ministry and teachings of the historical Jesus, largely because we like the Gospel version better (assuming there is indeed a disparity between the Gospel and Pauline understandings of Christ). Secondly, insofar as we assume (instead of or in addition to the previous assumption) that the true message of the historical Jesus, when liberated from its Pauline filter, would automatically look like 21st-century liberal progressivism (or 1960's/1970's-era hippiedom), we fairly clearly open ourselves to accusations of intellectual dishonesty.
Depending on one's Christology, the notion that the historical Jesus would have thought and acted like a 21st-century progressive isn't exactly incoherent
, of course; insofar as 21st-century progressives have gotten their general account of life, the universe, and everything more right than have those who have come before us (and as a 21st-century progressive, there is certainly a sense in which I think it is true), then it would make sense that it more perfectly align with a God's-eye view of the universe. The problem is that this reasoning is that it's bad Christology
, bad metaphysics
simply isn't informed by our secular understanding of history (which requires us to assume that the historical Jesus would have thought and acted like--surprise!--a first-century Jew) and thus has to be accepted on the basis of blind, unmotivated belief (not
faith, which is fundamentally experiential rather than cogitational).
Most fundamentally, I think the sort of fetishization of the historical Jesus one often sees in liberal or progressive circles ultimately falls prey to what my friend Ruth Ellen, in her sermon "the cancer sermon (no snazzy title)"
places under the category of "angel worship." She's responding to St. Paul's urging in Col. 2:18-19 to
not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, dwelling on visions, puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking, and not holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God.
Ruth Ellen reminds us that
there's a deeper kind of angel worship that arises when we begin worshiping the messenger instead of living the message. When we start worshiping the Bible instead of the living Word that is Christ, when we devote our energy to preserving the edifice of the church instead of living as Christ's Body -- then we are worshiping angels instead of sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the angel worship has become cancerous.
I'm 100% agreed with her that Bibliolatry is cancerous in this type of way. However, I think the "quest for the historical Jesus" also becomes the type of angelogical project that Ruth Ellen talks about, a type of "worshiping the messenger," when it represents (as I think it usually does) an attempt to avoid having to engage in Spirit-driven dialectical conversation with the Risen Christ in the context of our contemporary world and culture, here and now.
By trying to determine what we would or would not hear if we were able to travel via TARDIS to the times and places at which Yeshua bar Yosef would have taught, I think we "empty out" Christianity and the empty shell which is left is little more than a cult of personality. The attempt to recover some type of uncorrupted pre-Pauline Gospel message can quickly develop into its own type of fundamentalism when it becomes little more than a search for rules and principles to follow handed down by a millenia-old source.
My bias is to think that properly understood (where "properly understood" of course means "understood the way Cole wants it to be understood") Chalcedonian Christology presents us with the antidotes to both types of fundamentalism. Worship of the Word-Made-Flesh, eternally begotten from God the Mother, both fully human AND fully divine, two natures in one person: this, I think, is about as far removed from a cult of personality as it is possible to get.
Of course, there are those who would argue that my account of "Word made flesh" is implicitly docetist. I'd argue that the fact that "made flesh" is in the title automatically negates any possibility of a fall into the docetist heresy (not that I'm any advocate for orthodoxy for orthodoxy's sake, exactly), but I understand the argument that the "made flesh" is meaningless without an emphasis on the particularity of the incarnated human being within history. I understand it--but I still think it's wrong.
Following a Chalcedonian-Christological Jesus means more than simply following the ethical principles the historical Jesus would have exemplified in his life, then (even if we did have a reliable mechanism for extrapolating those principles apart from the post-Pauline Christian tradition, which we don't). We don't just follow Jesus. We worship Christ. More importantly, we are part of Christ's Body--"Christ has no hands on Earth but ours" (St. Teresa de Avilla)--and it falls to us, the Church, with the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, to build God's Kingdom--a kingdom which is marked primarily by sexual, economic, and political liberation, because Christ IS liberation; that's the essence of the Sacred Heart.
So where does this leave St. Paul?
I've already written about my view of the role of Scripture, both in the essay History and Christ
and in my Our Lenten Collage
post Going Deep with Scripture
. I'll briefly quote from the latter:
[T]he Bible is [. . . ] a gift from God, a tool for understanding God and seeing God and discerning God's will. As Christians, the Bible is part of our inheritance, the lens through which we understand the transcendent. It is a shared language and history which binds us together as sisters and brothers in Christ. It's the core of the basis for our entire religious symbology (with additions made here and there, sure). Its stories inform who we are, both culturally and spiritually. These are the documents which we as a Church look to as foundational.
This understanding of Scripture does not require St. Paul to be a completely reliable witness. Instead, it recognizes that within his writing there exists the potentiality for inspiration.
I adhere to the faitly common tenet of contemporary literary criticism that meaning does not inhere within a text, but rather within the dialectical engagement which exists between a reader and a text. When we engage with St. Paul, we enter into a process which opens us up for inspiration--whether or not we agree with what St. Paul has written.
As a series of Catholic (in the non-Roman sense) councils and synods presided over by the Holy Spirit, their eventual consensus as to which works are the canonical books of the Bible, eventually codified in the Vulgate version of St. Jerome and accepted at large by the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, is binding. And it includes Saint Paul.
Returning to "Going Deep with Scripture," I find that I wrote:
When I read Scripture [. . .] I can know that I am turning to the same book that billions (yes, billions) of Christians have turned to over nearly two thousand years, since befoire Scripture was even Scripture. I'm walking in the footprints of the Saints.
Our challenge today is not fundamentally different than theirs was: to use Scripture constructively, to find within it ethical solutions to the unique challenges which face us in our lives, and not to use it as an instrument of hate or war. (Obviously, at various moments in history the Church has fallen short of this challenge.) This is not a passive processs of God telling us what to do and us doing it, and to treat it that way is (I believe) a cop-out, an abdication of moral responsibility. The paradigm for our encounters with Scripture should be not Sinai, but Penuel.
I don't believe there is a "pure" or interpretation-free reading of the Bible. Our task is to, guided by the Holy Spirit and the evolving teaching of Mother Church, choose those interpretations which are most ethical, loving, and empowering to all human beings, drawing on in our discernment all the resources God has given us.
Now, the actual process of finding these "best readings" is a time-consuming process, and one I haven't really approached in any systematic way when it comes to the epistles. But that's not because I don't think the process is worthwhile.