Impressions from Paul’s letters to the Galatians, Philippians, Corinthians, and Philemon

My overall impression from reading these letters is that Paul was a man of strong feelings, rhetorical skill, and an overriding passion for the gospel that was laced throughout with joy; and that the church of Paul’s time was anything but unified, to the point that we should perhaps talk about Christianities rather than Christianity. It is clear that there are elements of Paul’s message that will be overlooked or misinterpreted if one is unaware of the religious, political, social, and rhetorical strands woven through Paul’s life and ministry, and the lives of the churches to whom he wrote. Least familiar to me were the rhetorical conventions that shaped the letters into structures that were therefore difficult to see.

The letters include problematic texts for those concerned with the full inclusion of women in the church (1 Cor) and for those concerned with Jewish-Christian dialogue. In both cases, it is important to interpret these texts in their full context: Paul’s matter-of-fact identification of women as coworkers and leaders of Christian communities, his continued self-identification as Jewish, and the real difficulties faced by mixed Jewish-Gentile communities that wanted to practice table fellowship.

Paul was concerned with both right faith and right relationship. These letters include texts that are particularly significant with respect to justification, freedom, authority, and the responsibilities that Christians have toward each other, especially in the face of conflict or disagreement. They also include fierce and compelling texts against false teaching and false teachers, which are not obviously reconcilable with the texts on conflict and unity. Paul shows no hesitation in identifying some positions, and the persons who hold them, as outside the true faith; but because we have his occasional letters rather than a systematic theology, the difference between a faction with whom we should reconcile, and a false teaching which should be repudiated, is not immediately obvious. Paul’s primary criterion of cruciformity (or kenosis, as my tradition would more comfortably have it) is general and requires interpretation and application.

The hymn in Phil 2:6-11 is a liturgical expression of this criterion, and is arguably a summation of Paul’s gospel. This letter has a particular word to speak to those involved in conflict within the church. Galatians is especially relevant to discussions of faith and works, but must be read carefully, as must the texts pertaining to Jewish law and the retelling of the story of Sarah and Hagar. The two letters to the Corinthians tell us of a community in frequent crisis both internally and with respect to its primary church leader; the conflicts concern faith, order, and personal relationship. It’s a blessing that we have two of the (at least) four letters so that we can see ongoing tumult that is not immediately resolved. The letter to Philemon also concerns conflict but on a much more personal, immediate, and concrete scale, making it clear that Christianity is not only about general principles but about very specific, difficult, costly actions.

Galatians was influential during the Reformation. Martin Luther and later Reformers saw in this letter an opposition between faith and works, equating the ecclesiastical law of the Roman Catholic church with the Law of Moses that Paul condemns here as not only superfluous but actually a rejection of the freedom given to us through Christ’s sacrifice as children and heirs of God. I expect this letter will be important in the next section of the course on justification. In its original context, the letter is wrestling with the pressing issue of what differences, if any, remained between Jewish and Gentile Christians with respect to their praxis and their status in the covenant. The difference between supplementing and supplanting the gospel is an interesting one; I wondered whether Paul worried that supplemental conditions might subtly seduce the formerly polytheistic pagan Gentiles back to the pagan attitudes towards the gods, unlike Jewish Christians who were clear about who the God of Israel was and what kind of response that God wanted from them. Pamela Eisenbaum argues that Paul’s condemnation of circumcision was specific to Gentiles only. Jews should stay Jews, and Gentiles should stay Gentiles; perhaps because otherwise, how will the Gentile nations come to worship the LORD? This resembles Paul’s advice on marriage in 1 Cor, that people should continue in the state that they were in when they were baptized, so I find this persuasive.

First Corinthians contains two texts that are historically significant: the earliest surviving creed (15:3-5) and institution narrative of the Lord’s Supper (11:23-25). The warnings against misuse of the Lord’s Supper are important liturgical texts in some Protestant traditions that repeat these texts and leave the question of communion up to the recipient’s conscience. Its discussion of eating meat offered to idols in chapter 8 is a foundational text for the doctrine of scandal in the Roman Catholic church; its discussion of the proper uses of Christian freedom has been influential in Catholic teaching, as has the related text in Galatians. The deprecation of glossolalia compared to other gifts, and the censure of those who treat it as some kind of special status marker, is a challenge to the Charismatic and Pentecostal traditions. The warning against treating those who have higher social or spiritual status as if they are superior to the rest of the community could arguably be considered relevant today for discussions of the proper relationship between laity and clergy, especially bishops; so could Paul’s discussion of how he chose not to exercise his rights in order to be a more effective teacher in the community.

Second Corinthians struck me as disjointed, but by this time I’d seen this rhetorical pattern of interruption and return often enough that I suspected its presence here. The most memorable passage was his list of anti-heroic attributes near the end of the letter; the most beautiful was the passage on sadness and repentance in 7:6-13. We should be using that text during Lent and in our sacrament of reconciliation, but it does not appear in the lectionary. I wondered what Paul was threatening the Corinthians with, exactly; do we have any idea? And was he really claiming that he could not be in error about the truth? If so, which truth?

I was uncomfortable with the power dynamics in the letter to Philemon. While it is true that Paul does not overtly command Philemon to free Onesimus, he pretty much does so covertly: pointing out their new relationship as brothers in Christ, cashing in a debt, and doing it all in front of witnesses on both sides. That feels pretty coercive to me.

There are some differences in lectionary uses of these letters. Comparing the Roman Catholic, Revised Common, Lutheran, Episcopalian, and United Methodist lectionaries, I found that Catholics read Phil 4:12-20, 1 Cor 7:32-35, 10:31-11:1, 15:54-58, while Protestants don’t. Protestants read 1 Cor 3:1-9, 9:24-27, while Catholics don’t. Episcopalians and Catholics omit 2 Cor 4:3-6, 9:6-15. Episcopalians read 1 Cor 14:12-20 and omit 15:19-28 and 2 Cor 3:12-4:2. I did not check what was being read instead, and did not notice any obvious theological significance to these differences.

Sources Consulted

Eisenbaum, Pamela. The Paul I Know: A Jewish Evaluation,” talk given at the seminar on Paul in Two Worlds: A Jew and a Christian Talk about the Apostle, Oklahoma City University, May 11-12, 2012., accessed 3 June 2012, 10:00pm.

Gorman, Michael J. Apostle of the Crucified Lord: A Theological Introduction to Paul and his Letters. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. 2004.

Just, Felix. The Catholic Lectionary Website. Accessed June 7, 2012.

Osiek, Carolyn. “Reader’s Guide.” The Catholic Study Bible. New York: Oxford, 2006.

Woodard, Jenee. The Text This Week. Accessed May 26, 2012.

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3 Responses to Impressions from Paul’s letters to the Galatians, Philippians, Corinthians, and Philemon

  1. Pingback: Thoughts on Healy’s “By the Working of the Holy Spirit”: The Crisis of Authority in the Christian Churches | Gaudete Theology

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