Reading Paul (properly)

I start my new Anima Education course “Reading Paul” on Monday night 6pm – 8pm at Mary Glowrey House (132 Nicholson Street, Fitzroy). You are welcome to come and join us if you live in or around Melbourne. The course will run continuously for the rest of the year during term time on Monday nights. You can sign up for the lot or just come on the nights you are free.

In fact, the course will be less a lecture and more a bible study. The aim is to find out as much as we can about St Paul and his message by reading about his journeys in Acts and reading his letters (in roughly chronological rather than biblical order). The Holy Father has announced that the “Year of St Paul” will begin on the Feast of Sts Peter and Paul (June 29) this year and close on the same date in 2009.

To prepare I am reading (among other things) a little Tom Wright book called “What Saint Paul Really Said”. It is very short (less than 200 pages) and suitable for the lay reader. It also contains some very interesting discussion of “what St Paul really said” when he was talking about the “Righteousness of God” and “justification”.

I can’t give the whole thesis here, but I found this fascinating:

But if we come to Paul with these questions in mind–the questions about how human beings come into a living and saving relationship with the living and saving God–it is not justification that springs to his lips or pen. When he describes how persons, finding themselves confronted with the act of God in Christ, come to appropriate that act for themselves, he has a clear train of thought, repeated at various points. The message about Jesus and his cross and resurrection–‘the gospel’…–is announced to them; through this means, God works by is Spirit upon their hearts; as a result, they come to believe the message; they join the Christian community through baptism, and begin to share in its common life and its common way of life. That is how people come into relationship with the living God.

The simplicity of that paragraph is quite breathtaking for one who was raised on interminable discussions coloured by Pelagian/Augustinian and Lutheran/Catholic arguments over the doctrine of Justification. Wright’s entire argument is that Paul does not use ‘justification’ as a paradigm for personal salvation. Think about it.

If you are not convinced, he even quotes Alister McGrath (another great contemporary protestant theologian whom I have had the pleasure to hear speak in person) from his major work “Iustitia Dei“, where he writes that ‘the doctrine of justification’

has come to develop a meaning quite independent of its biblical origins… The church has chosen to subsume its dicussion of the reconcilation of man to God under the aegis of justification, thereby giving the concept an emphasis quite absent from the New Testament… quite independant of its Pauline origins…

The upshot of this, according to Wright, is that while the way in which the Church has chosen to use the term ‘justification’ is “neither here nor there”, it is not legitimate to “ransack” Paul’s letters for statements

dare we say even for proof-texts, on a subject which he may not himself have conceived in those terms. If it is true that Paul meant by ‘justification’ something which is significantly different from what subsequent debate has meant, then this appeal to him is consistently flawed, maybe even invalidated altogether.”

Now THAT, I suggest, should cause a real problem for those who insist that the doctrine of justification should be based on “scripture alone”.

(In case your appetite has been whetted by this short comment, there is a feast of material on the matter here at “The Paul Page”)

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