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Paul The Apostle

Paul, or-to use his Jewish name-Saul, was born in Tarsus and educated in Jerusalem under a leading Pharisaic rabbi, Gamaliel. After coming to prominence as a leading persecutor of the infant Christian Church, he experienced an abrupt volte-face; he was confronted by the risen Jesus in an experience which was for him both a conversion from his former zeal for Judaism and its law and also a call to redirect that zeal into being a missionary to the Gentiles. He spent three years in Arabia, presumably as a missionary, then returned via Jerusalem to his native town where he spent the better part of fourteen years in evangelism.

When he was summoned by Barnabas to Antioch to assist in his work there, he entered upon a new, well-documented stage in his career which was of decisive importance in the expansion of the church. Along with Barnabas he was sent out by the church at Antioch to do missionary work in Cyprus and Galatia. Then with other companions he worked successively in Macedonia (Philippi and Thessalonica), Greece (Corinth), and Asia (Ephesus), planting churches and providing both them and posterity with a series of writings which have fundamentally shaped Christian theology. His plans for a further mission in the west of the Roman Empire were hindered by his arrest and imprisonment, first in Jerusalem and Caesarea, and then in Rome. Whether he was ever released from imprisonment, and, if so, whether he ever reached Spain, are questions difficult to answer. The evidence suggests an affirmative answer to the former (cf. the hopes expressed in Phil. 2:24 and Philem. 22), but a negative one to the latter (the Pastorals imply work in the Aegean area). In any case, he concluded his life as a martyr-according to tradition-during the Neronian persecution.

Because of his considerable personal correspondence we know Paul better than any other character in the NT. Though stylo- statistical studies have sometimes suggested doubts about the authenticity of all but four or five of his letters, the methods used are themselves doubtful in their reasoning, particularly when their results clash with those of other, well-tried methods of literary and historical study. We may fairly confidently accept the Pauline authorship of the thirteen letters traditionally attributed to him, although there must remain some uncertainty whether a few of them (the Pastorals, and perhaps Ephesians) come directly from him (see Epistles, Pauline). The picture which they give of Paul's career and theology agrees closely with that given in Acts, thus demonstrating (over against skeptical viewpoints) the substantial reliability of that source (see Acts of the Apostles).

The picture that emerges is primarily that of a missionary. This was how Paul regarded himself. The key to the man is his sense of apostleship (Gal. 1:1; Rom. 1:1-6), of being called by the risen Christ (1 Cor. 9:1) to be His missionary to the Gentiles (Gal. 1:15-17; Rom. 15:15f.); through this mission he hoped to make his fellow Jews envious of the blessings brought by the Gospel and so lead them to faith in Christ (Rom. 11:13f.). In this missionary task Paul saw himself as the missionary to the Gentiles (Gal. 2:7f.), who could claim to have evangelized the whole of the Aegean area and Greece; by setting his sights on Spain he could look forward to having covered most of the northern half of the Roman Empire (Rom. 15:17-29).

There emerges incidentally a pattern of missionary preaching (1 Tim. 2:7) with the leader selecting strategic centers where he worked long enough to establish a self-propagating church and entrusted the detailed outworking of the campaign to his assistants, both local and itinerant like himself (e.g., Epaphras, Col. 1:7; cf. 2:1; Timothy and Titus). Paul also appears as a man with a tremendous pastoral concern for his churches, conscious of the responsibility of a father for their continued growth (2 Cor. 11:28; 1 Cor. 4:14-21).

Paul's basic theology rested firmly on that of the primitive church; he frequently is indebted to it for theological and ethical material. Throughout his career he was beset by opponents who were envious of his success or anxious to upset his work. His theology is thus very much shaped by polemics, and it owed its individual development to the exigencies of debate. Two main types of opponent may be distinguished.

On the one hand, there were Judaizers, men who insisted that in order to be saved Gentiles as well as Jews must keep the law of Moses, including circumcision and the observance of Jewish festivals and food regulations, and who forbade fellowship between Jewish Christians and uncircumcised Gentile Christians. Paul's refusal to tolerate such requirements nearly led to a break in fellowship with the Jewish Christians, but although the more extreme Jewish Christians may have kept to themselves, the leaders (Peter, James, and John) sided with Paul and accepted the principle of freedom for the Gentiles (Galatians; Phil. 3; the opponents of Paul in 2 Corinthians appear to have been Jewish Christians of a similar character).

On the other hand, there were Hellenistic Christians who held incipient Gnostic views. They postulated a sharp dualism of spirit and matter, holding that the latter was unsavable but that spiritual salvation was possible here and now for an elite group who possessed a higher “knowledge” not accessible to all Christians. This affected their attitude to bodily life, producing curious mixtures of asceticism and moral license. Such beliefs appear to have been held in Corinth (1 Corinthians reflects them; they are much less obvious in 2 Corinthians), Colossae, and the churches indirectly addressed in the Pastorals. It is not always easy to draw a firm line between Judaizing and Gnostic outlooks, since there were strong elements of syncretism in Diaspora Judaism.

The theology developed by Paul in this situation demonstrated an essentially Jewish background. It shows his constant indebtedness to the OT and to his rabbinical training as a disciple of the Hillelite teacher Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). Nevertheless, what he says is in conscious opposition to Jewish thinking. He strongly attacks the view that men can find favor with God by obedience to the Mosaic law, since on his view of it the effect of the law is actually to heighten human sinfulness (Rom. 7:7-12). Thus the advantage of the Jew is cut away at a stroke (Rom. 3:9). But although Gentiles may have the law in their hearts, they too have failed to keep it, and so the whole world is guilty before God (Rom. 3:22f.). It is a plight from which it can be rescued only through Christ, and only through a crucified Christ who takes on Himself the curse of human sin (2 Cor. 5:21; Gal. 3:13) and offers Himself obediently to God as a sacrifice for it (Rom. 3:24f.). Thus through the sheer grace of God (Rom. 5:8) men are reconciled to Him (2 Cor. 5:18-20) and redeemed from the power of sin to belong to Him (1 Cor. 6:19f.). On the human side the gift is to be received by faith alone, the attitude in which a man accepts humbly what Christ has done for him, instead of trying to please God (Rom. 3:27-31; Rom. 4; Gal. 2:15-3:9; Eph. 2:8). To describe this experience Paul developed the terminology of justification, a divine act tantamount to forgiveness (Rom. 4:4-8).

For Paul, however, being a Christian is more than having a new status before God. In a rich variety of ways he speaks of a new experience of God. Through faith in Christ, the Christian stands in a personal relationship to his new Lord. He can be said to have died with Christ to his old life of sin and to be alive with Christ (Rom. 6:1-11). Paul claims to “know” Christ in a relationship of close spiritual communion (Phil. 3:10). The very frequent phrase “in Christ” has often been understood in this “mystical” sense, but more probably it refers basically to having one's life determined by the “fact” of Christ. In any case, what is of supreme significance for Paul is the death and resurrection of Christ. He knows no other Christ than the crucified, risen, and returning Christ (1 Cor. 2:2; 15:3-5, 20-23), and almost lets His earthly life fade into insignificance.

At the same time the Christian life is characterized by the experience of the Spirit (variously called the Spirit of God and the Spirit of Christ, Rom 8:9), who comes and enters the life of the believer (Rom. 8:9-11). It seems that the practical difference between the presence of Christ (Rom. 8:10) and of the Spirit was minimal, although Paul was quite clear that they were distinct persons. Possession of the Spirit is the essential mark of the Christian; through the Spirit all the power of God leading to holiness and ultimate transformation to resurrection life is given to the believer.

Such thinking could lead Gnostics to a highly spiritual view of Christ, severed from historical reality, and suggest that salvation in all its fullness was already present (1 Cor. 4:8; 2 Tim. 2:18). Against such dangers Paul emphasized the historical reality of the crucifixion of Christ (1 Cor. 1:23), and the reality of temptation and suffering in the life of the Christian who is not yet perfect (Phil. 3:12) and looks forward to the coming of Christ (2 Cor. 4). And against the Gnostic depreciation of the body he stressed the hope of the resurrection of the body as the bearer of human personality (1 Cor. 15; 2 Cor. 5:1-10). He combated any suggestion that Christ was merely one divine power among many, and insisted that the fullness of deity was present in Him. He was preexistent (Phil. 2:5-11), the divine agent in creation (1 Cor. 8:6), the expression of divine love in redemption (Gal. 2:20), the very image of God (Col. 1:15-20; 2:9), the supreme Lord who is yet subordinate to His Father (1 Cor. 15:28).

None of the above should be understood in an individualistic manner. Paul's thought is basically corporate as he thinks of believers in the plural as sharers in a common salvation. Together they form the body of Christ (Rom. 12:4f.; 1 Cor. 12), subordinate to their Head (Col. 2:19); they are a temple indwelt by the Spirit (Eph. 2:20-22); they are the bride whom Christ loved and died to redeem (Eph. 5:25-33). As such, Christians exist to glorify and serve God (1 Thess. 2:12), and this they do, not only by worshiping Him, but also by a mutual love which leads them to fulfil God's commandments (Rom. 13:8-10) in every aspect of their family and social life (Eph. 4:17-6:9). Hence the church is a society of which all are at one and human divisions cease to divide (Gal. 3:28f.).

Paul's gospel was a message, to be preached. His basic activity was that of a preacher, leading men to salvation through what was not merely a human message but one empowered by the Spirit and thus itself the word of God (1 Thess. 1:5; 2:13). So great was Paul's emphasis on the word that he attached comparatively little significance to the sacraments; Christ sent him to preach, not to baptize (1 Cor. 1:17). The outward act of baptism was secondary in importance: what mattered was what it signified, cleansing from sin (1 Cor. 6:11) and union with Christ in His death and resurrection by faith (Rom. 6:1-11; Col. 2:12). Nor should we have heard about the Lord's Supper from him, divinely ordained rite though it also is, had it not been for disorders at Corinth (1 Cor. 11:23ff.); for Paul it was a means of proclaiming the Gospel, and of communion with Christ, although participation in it was no automatic guarantee of salvation.

This stress on preaching must not be misunderstood to mean that the message is everything, so that the historical Christ does not matter, and Christ becomes merely the content of a message challenging men to existential decision. This is the error of R. Bultmann,* who reduced Pauline theology to an anthropology of man's existence prior to faith and under faith. To think thus is to miss the essentially christological and theological orientation of Paul; it also misrepresents the place of the historical Jesus for Paul and the OT “history of salvation” that preceded Him. “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith”; for Paul, theology derived from his meeting with the risen Christ, who was the historical Jesus and the eternal Son of God.

C.A.A. Scott, Christianity according to St. Paul (1927, 1961); W.D. Davies, Paul and Rabbinic Judaism (1948, 1955); R. Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, vol. I (1952); L. Cerfaux, Christ in the Theology of Paul (1959); B.M. Metzger, Index to Periodical Literature on the Apostle Paul (1960); J. Munck, Paul and the Salvation of Mankind (1960); E.E. Ellis, Paul and His Recent Interpreters (1961); H.J. Schoeps, Paul: The Theology of the Apostle in the Light of Jewish Religious History (1961); E.E. Ellis, “Paul” in NBD (1962): full bibliography to that date; C.K. Barrett, From First Adam to Last: A Study in Pauline Theology (1962); R.N. Longenecker, Paul: Apostle of Liberty (1964); D.E.H. Whiteley, The Theology of St. Paul (1964); A.M. Hunter, The Gospel according to St. Paul (1966); L. Cerfaux, The Christian in the Theology of Paul (1967); O. Cullmann, Salvation in History (1967); J.A. Fitzmyer, Pauline Theology: A Brief Sketch (1967); M.F. Wiles, The Divine Apostle: The Interpretation of St. Paul's Epistles in the Early Church (1967); G. Ogg, The Chronology of the Life of Paul (1968); B. Rigaux, Letters of St. Paul: Modern Studies (1968); H. Conzelmann, An Outline of the Theology of the New Testament (1969); J.C. Pollock, The Apostle: A Life of Paul (1969); E. Käsemann, Perspectives on Paul (1971); G. Bornkamm, Paul (1971); R.N. Longenecker, “Paul” in ZPEB (1975), IV, 624-65; J.W. Drane, Paul: Libertine or Legalist? (1975).