Sunday, November 6, 2011

That darned old St. Paul...

C. S. Lewis thought (1947) that "most astonishing misconception [that] has long dominated the modern mind on the subject of St. Paul" to the effect that "Jesus preached a kindly and simple religion (found in the gospels) and that St. Paul afterwards corrupted it into a cruel and complicated religion (found in the epistles)."

I was reminded of that quote by another blog.  It is easy to see how the misconception formed.  The so-called "simple faith of Jesus" is a romantic desire of those who think that generally those who came after Jesus (especially St. Paul but including all those called "theologians") distorted, corrupted, and complicated what was essentially a basic, simple, and even simplistic religion. 

You can read a full response to this ridiculous idea from Greg Carey at the Huffington Post.  He seems to do an adequate job of responding to this common misconception.  I will not repeat or re-do his words here.

Most of the attempts to deconstruct the Pauline religion from Jesus' simple faith focus on morality.  Indeed, the most common attraction of Jesus to the secular mind is His morality, His goodness.  When one person was asked recently for a simple definition of or the goal of Christianity, she responded by saying "to be good."  To be good is a lofty and noble goal.  It is not one I would discourage.  But it is not really the point and purpose of Jesus' coming nor a fair summary of His teaching.  He tells us Himself.  He has come to fulfill the Law and the Prophets, to suffer and die for the sins of sinners all, to restore communion with the Father lost when sin stole us from Him, and to lead us past death to the eternal and heavenly home He has prepared for us, that we might pass with Him through His resurrection to an eternal life of communion with the Father.  You might make this shorter or you might make this longer but goodness is the fruit of this work and not its goal and purpose.

It is a sentimental idea to think of the religion of Jesus as being simple and straight forward in its call and pattern of goodness.  It is also just plain wrong.  We can have all the new morality we could possibly manufacture and it would not rescue us from the prison that sin and its death have placed us into since the Fall.  Before goodness can even enter the conversation, God must rescue us poor, miserable, and helpless sinners.  Only then can we be restored to the Father and to the noble life that was His intention in creating us.  Even then, we live our life in the flesh and not in some utopian new world.  We continue to be located in the midst of a struggle where the noble pursuit of good must always be lived out within the context of God's continued rescue and restoration through confession and absolution.

St. Paul speaks of this complicated life, lived under grace but within the spheres of test, trial, and temptation.  St. Paul speaks of this messy life, where we live in the tension between what we were and who we have been declared to be in Christ.  St. Paul points us to lives formed and shaped by this constant life of repentance and renewal.  Indeed the very purpose of the means of grace is to kindle and rekindle us in faith and place us under grace and replace us under that grace until we pass through death with Christ to our own joyful resurrection where tear, trial, trouble, and life constantly in need of being reclaimed gives way to eternal life cleansed from all of sin's marks and claims upon us.

I love the romance of this idea of the simple of faith of Jesus but it is an illusion not worth our attention.  In reality we have much more.  More than the goal of goodness, we have the rich and blessed opportunity to live out the new life planted in us in baptism, in but not of this sinful world, through the means of grace that redeem and restore us now and for all eternity.


Flo said...

Thanks for posting articles that not only teach me, but that I am able to share via Facebook, Twitter and Google+.
The world, including the church of course, needs to hear what Lutheran teaching has to say. Am always hoping to share the good news as best I can.

Anonymous said...

President Thomas Jefferson was
influenced by French Enlightenment
rationalism. As a result he cut
out of the 4 New Testament Gospels
of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John all
of the miracles of Christ. He also
did not believe in the virgin birth
or the resurrection of Christ.

Jefferson saw Christ as a moral
teacher and example of goodness.
He saw Christ as human but not divine

Janis Williams said...

Moral peccadilloes fill the conservative, fundamental, and many evangelical churches with legalists. The simple moral religion of Jesus eventually ends with the infection of rampant, secret sin. This is because those simple morals condemn us when we realize we can't live up to them.

The reaction to this fundamentalism is liberalism. Ironically the liberals tout the simple, moral religion of Jesus, as seen in the Sermon on the Mount. They end with antinomianism - sin run rampant because they also cannot keep the Law.

Jesus' religion and Paul's were the same.

Terry Maher said...

Jesus came proclaiming the Kingdom of God, but all he got was the church.

Thus the oft-said phrase during my university years, right on the heels of Vatican II.

That the real founder of Christianity was Paul and not Jesus is a common thread in many otherwise different religious viewpoints, including some who use the name "Christian".

Part of which, in its Christian manifestations, is that the Gospels do not reflect the actual teaching of Jesus at all, but rather the early Christian community's experience and belief, which is then put in the mouth of it "founder" according to the distinction between author and writer. IE since that's what we believe he said he can be portrayed as saying it.

Most Jewish takes on Jesus have a similar understanding of Paul -- since he was believed to be the Messiah, but what will happen when the Messiah comes did not happen when he came, his followers reinvented what a Messiah is in order to fit him and allow belief in him as the Messiah to continue. Messiah is never in Jewish thinking connected with forgiveness of sin, nor is the Messiah divine.