Final Essay …Master of the Life of St. Paul.
The life and works of the Apostle Paul still resonate through the ages and continue to generate controversy and debate. We have all been made aware of his alleged misogyny and there is frequent allusion to his stated opinions on the role of women in the community of the church (opinions often deployed and decontextualised in a highly partisan fashion to reinforce an argument which, many suspect, begins with visceral prejudice and then belatedly seeks corroborative material to reinforce that prejudice). Further, Paul is often accused (in particular by the Tubingen theological persuasion) of hi-jacking the early Christian church and re-making it according to his own prescription, lending it a structure and theology which is in no way pre-figured in the life and teachings of Christ.
Whilst it may be true that the Christian church at the close of Paul's missionary
activity was very different from the early community, it does not follow that the
developments that occurred in this Pauline period are alien to the message and the
principles enjoined by Jesus. The following that grew up around the person of Christ
may well be termed 'a cult of personality underpinned by millenarian expectancy',
but Paul, and others, knew that that had to change if the essence of the Christian
message were to survive and to avoid descent into faction and internecine strife. He
also saw the need to defend it against the attempts of the 'Judaisers' to annex it and to
reduce it to the status of yet another cult contained within the imperium of Jewish law
and practice. There was also the danger, in a polytheistic society, that Christianity
would be vitiated by the introduction of alien elements and practices and, indeed, this
certainly did occur with Gnosticism, Manichaeanism and Neo-platonism, inter al
gaining ground amongst the more susceptible gentile converts. In part, at least, Paul's greatness consists in his recognition that the Christian message was entire in itself and open to all, whether Jew or Gentile.
In his two epistles to the Corinthians, Paul reveals himself as a supremely practical apostle setting out clear guidelines for the creation of a worthy Christian community which will serve as a beacon and inspiration to its members and remain faithful to the message of Jesus Christ. Corinth, in Paul's day, was a highly diverse city, filled with different races, creeds, languages and temptations. Paul's advice to this fledgling community in the midst of debauchery, prostitution, and Oriental vices, is concentrated on remaining true to the message of the Cross, developing a tradition of godly ministry based on humility and true preaching of the gospels, worshipping communally and avoiding idolatrous practices that might tempt them. He counsels against too much reliance on the intellect and overvaluing logic and accumulated wisdom to the detriment of the simple faith and the promptings of the spirit.
The frequency of Paul's references to Jesus, throughout the two extant letters to the Corinthians, militates against the suggestion that he was imposing his own agenda rather than that of 'the one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live'. (1 Cor. 8:4).
Paul's advice to the Corinthians and his ongoing concern for their welfare, which prompted him to make at least three visits and to send emissaries such as Timothy from time to time to assess the situation there, mirrors the teaching of Jesus with its emphasis upon love, hope and salvation. 1 Corinthians chapter 13 provides a masterly re-working of Christ's emphasis upon God's unconditional love for us and our love towards our fellow men and women. Self-discipline and service allied to effective leadership and the valuing of the diverse gifts which individuals could bring to the service of the church, are all defined and placed by Paul into the context of an structure that would remain true to its founder and could endure over time. Once the expectation of an imminent Second Coming had receded, it was vital to settle down to the long haul of history and that required strength of purpose, clarity of vision and unity of belief.
Paul was one of the first to realise this and to address the issues, but not as the result of a preconceived master-plan or long-term strategy; his letters and visits to the Corinthians are normally reactive rather than pro-active – he learns of a crisis in Corinth, an outbreak of idolatrous practices or immorality and he responds by offering clear advice and strictures. The epistles do not suggest a coherent, evolving scheme for 'planting' a church or a premeditated modus vivendi but, rather a growing realisation that human nature needed guidance and could not be relied upon to understand and implement Christ's teachings and example unaided. If only for this aspect of his dedication and missionary zeal, Paul deserves the towering reputation that has been accorded to him as a Father of the Church.
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