Biblog by Laurence Devlin – The Apostle Paul (3 of 3) – December 2017

A mere 67 pages, this is what Paul’s 13 letters amount to and we know that some of them are not even by him. Compared with the 3000 pages of Aquinas’ Summa Theologica or the 8000 pages (yes!) of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics, this looks quite sparse, to say the least! And yet without Paul’s letters, Christianity would not be the religion it is today and its distinctive theological teachings may never have developed. So, to bring this mini-series on Paul to a close, I am turning my attention to Paul the theologian. As this bi-blog is hardly an exhaustive theology treatise(!) I will only mention 3 areas of interest: “repentance and forgiveness”, then the famous but difficult “justification by faith” and finally “salvation.”

Traditionally, Christianity has placed a strong emphasis on repentance and forgiveness as arguably, you can’t really have the latter without the former… According to the 3 synoptic Gospels, the need for repentance (metanoia in Greek, which means turning around, turning away from an old behaviour) goes back to Jesus himself: both Mark and Matthew have Jesus beginning his public ministry by calling people to repent while Luke reports that Jesus commanded “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” and that “repentance be preached to all nations.” John for his part affirms that “If we confess our sins, He who is faithful and just, will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

In other words, what seems to be firmly established is that we are all sinners for whom the only remedy is forgiveness. To obtain that forgiveness however we must first confess and repent. What is highly surprising therefore is that there is almost nothing in Paul’s letters about repentance and forgiveness as such. For sure, Paul did call for repentance (Acts 17:30, 20:21 and 26:20) but the two concepts are rarely mentioned in his letters. Why not? Probably because Paul prefers other metaphors to describe the “turning away” and “the new beginning” that the Greek word “metanoia” evokes: justification, redemption, deliverance, liberation, reconciliation. But why then does he choose specifically these metaphors?

One possible explanation might lie in Paul’s rather unique understanding of “sin”. Sin for Paul is of course part of the human condition and is very real indeed: the word appears 61 times in his 7 undisputed letters! However, in contrast to the Synoptics, “sin” for him does not refer specifically to acts of transgression but rather to an alien power by which humans are enslaved and from which they need liberation: He speaks (especially in Romans) about “sin coming into the world” (Rom. 5) and “dwelling” in people, people “being deceived by sin” (Rom. 7) or sin “having dominion” (Rom.6). So, for Paul, sin is not so much the bad things that people do but the enslaving power that causes them to do those bad things. So, if they yield to that power and do wrong, the remedy is not repentance but liberation from that power. This is why he speaks of being “set free” and does not mention forgiveness as such.

There might be however another deeper reason as Paul found the very idea of repentance theologically problematic. Repentance is something people do in order to receive forgiveness, i.e. to be brought back into the right relationship with God: if you repent, you will be forgiven. For Paul this is highly objectionable as there is nothing that a person can do to attain a right relationship with God. This is only brought about by GOD. In short it is not what we do that counts but what God does. This is of course what Luther understood when he read Romans 1:17 and translated it as follows: “for in the Gospels, the righteousness of God is revealed through faith and for faith. The one who is righteous through faith, will live.” So, for Luther, you become righteous or justified (= in a right relationship with God) by faith.

And so was born the rallying cry of the Reformation: “justification by faith and not by works,” an essential tenet of Protestantism since then. This is also articulated very clearly in the famous verse 16 of Galatians 2: “Yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.” In other words, according to Paul, a person is justified not by obeying the commandments but rather through faith in Christ.
Simple and straightforward, right? Not quite!

There is now a vigorous debate among theologians about that major tenet of Paul’s theology, namely how a person is justified: Is it through our faith in Jesus Christ or is it through Christ’s faith? The debate rests on the translation of a simple two-word Greek phrase: “Pistis Christou” which can be translated either way! Indeed, because of grammatical nuances that I will spare you, Pistis Christou can mean faith in/faithfulness to Christ OR Christ’s own faithfulness. This is not the only example of such ambiguity: “the love of Christ” in 2 Cor. 5:14 can mean either our love for Christ or Christ’s love for us and “the love of God” in Rom. 5:5 can mean God’s love for us or our love for God. Of course, the context generally clarifies matters but not always!

Now, you may think that those are obscure quarrels of dried-up, fussy old scholars lost in grammatical nuances which don’t matter two jots to most of us in real life… You might be right of course but the theological stakes are high, both for our understanding of Paul and for Christian theology in general in the wake of the Reformation. If Pistis Christou means “faith IN Christ”, then Luther was right and protestant theology was on the right track. If, however, Pistis Christou means “the faith or faithfulness OF Christ” then Luther got it all wrong and Protestant theology too! oh oh oh…

In fact, even if we need to remember that for Paul, “pistis” (faith) is indeed a fruit of the spirit, which would tend to give reason to Luther’s interpretation, the arguments for “faith IN Christ” or for “faith OF Christ” are evenly balanced and therefore the debate rages on… However, it is worth noting that for many theologians, the translation “Faith OF Christ” carries us to a different theological level, namely that it is Christ’s faith or Christ’s faithfulness which reversed the disobedience of Adam and which is therefore the basis of our justification and therefore … of our salvation! This is indeed a BIG theological hot potato!

But then if Paul really believed that people are justified by Christ’s own faith/faithfulness and not by anything they themselves do, another crucially important theological question arises: Does that mean that ALL people are (and will be) justified and that there is and will be ultimate salvation for everyone, in other words was Paul advocating universal salvation? May-be but this is not exactly how we traditionally think of Paul who talks of people “perishing,” of “people for whom there will be no escape” or of “none of these will inherit the kingdom of God”! But then we know that Paul’s thought was never static but rather evolving according to circumstances, so it is conceivable that he became a universalist… This one will run and run so it is up to us to make our own mind on whether we think salvation is universal, whatever Paul thought and also whatever we understand salvation to mean!