A Catholic’s Perception of an Orthodox View of Paul, informed by Certain Homilies by St. John Chrysostom

Based on some prior familiarity with the Eastern Orthodox tradition, the relatively small bit of reading I’ve done in the Orthodox Study Bible (and reviews thereof), and several of the homilies of St. Chrysostom, I venture a response to the following four questions from my impression of an Orthodox perspective: what is Paul’s view of salvation; of the significance of Christ; what theological framework should be used to understand Paul; and what is Paul’s vision for the churches.

Through these readings in the Orthodox tradition, I see Paul as an exhorter: someone who has seen, in his crucified and risen Lord, the dawning of the age to come which surpassed his every expectation and is worth any cost, and who is now determined to use every means at his disposal to exhort and assist everyone he encounters to enter into that new creation through Christ Jesus. His vision for the churches is that they should be “in” (meaning, fully in communion with) in God, in Christ, and (thereby) in each other, and should imitate him (that is, Paul) in exhorting and aiding others. Christ is the gateway or the bridge between humanity and God, and between this age and the age to come, who ransomed us at tremendous cost to our tremendous benefit (indeed, glory): Christ is thus absolutely central to Paul’s life, preaching, and worldview. His view of salvation is that it has been won for us, given to us, bestowed on us through no merit or effort of our own, and that it requires great diligence on our part to preserve this gift. Our salvation is thus a cooperative effort between us and God: God grants it to us, and we must work to preserve it; it grants to us also spiritual benefits which make it easier for us to abstain from sin, and we thereby are called to a higher standard since this is now possible for us. To put a modern spin on Paul’s athletic analogies, it is as if we’ve been lifted out of our high school baseball team, endowed with an improved talent for baseball, and given a position in the majors: we didn’t earn it, it was purely gratuitous, and much is now expected of us, both in terms of practice and of performance, in order to preserve that status.[1]

This emphasis on the human effort required of us after we are saved is characteristic of Orthodox thought. Other recognizably Orthodox themes were the metaphor of medicine against sin, which is the primary metaphor for Orthodox sacramental theology, the associated emphasis on “weakness” rather than “badness,” and the importance of cultivating virtue and avoiding spiritual listlessness in order to avoid falling into sin, which appears in the great Lenten prayer by St. Ephraim the Syrian. In terms of methodology, the matter-of-fact use of scriptural references outside the letter at hand, and even outside the Pauline corpus entirely, when preaching on the text seemed characteristic.

Overall I enjoyed reading Chrysostom. I liked his attention to Paul’s methods and the flow of his arguments, explaining the style and technique. Much of his “golden-mouth” is lost in translation but some comes through. It was less obvious in the sermons on Philippians 2:5-11 (which should have been subtitled “against heretics”), but in the other sermons he’ll occasionally have a turn of phrase or interjection that just makes me chuckle. He comes across as a bit of a character. His turn from the scriptural to the practical applications to the Christian life inspired a number of questions about the circumstances in which he was preaching, as well as some discomfort at his willingness to emotionally manipulate his audience (although I realize this was a typical rhetorical strategy of the time). I note that he freely mixed arguments from scripture, from reason, experience, or common sense, and from example.

Judging from Chrysostom, the Philippians hymn was clearly a master text for the Christology debates, and I found most of his arguments convincing. In the homily on Romans, I liked the discussion about the body as a neutral instrument, and the comparison of the “crown” being given before or after the race was run. The discussion of the paidogogos analogy in Galatians was very helpful: it’s the first discussion I’ve seen that really clarified how Paul could argue that the Law (Torah) might be, not intrinsically bad or defunct, but bad for Christians. (This appears to be in principle consistent with a two-covenant theory: Chrysostom’s explication of Paul’s argument is that we are dead to the Law by virtue of our baptism, which would not apply to non-Christian Jews.) The discussion of the church in the opening to 1 Thess was much more interesting than I expected it to be.

The Orthodox lectionary (as represented in the back of the Orthodox Study Bible) is a one-year cycle, with weekdays and Sundays part of the same cycle. Thus the Pauline letters are read through in order, but those who attend the Divine Liturgy only on Sundays will not hear this continuity. Romans, Corinthians, and Ephesians dominate during the Sundays of Pentecost (roughly analogous to Ordinary Time).

[1] I’m really not much of a sports fan, but I guess this is what happens when I do my homework at the gym!

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