Why We Need Paul

The Reclaiming Paul conference was quite fruitful in my opinion. The atmosphere of scholars and pastors was a unique environment in which to wrestle with the apostle Paul and the implications for the church today.

I want to begin by discussing the opening plenary session. Mike Gorman, Professor of Sacred Scripture at St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore gave a lecture entitled, “Reclaiming Paul: An Invitation.” This is essentially my chance to reflect back upon the conference.

Gorman began by looking at the reasons why the church needs to reclaim Paul. He offered several reasons. First, Paul has been victimized by proof-texting far more than any other biblical author. Thus, we need to recover a more holistic view of Paul. Second, Paul has been privatized. What I mean by this is that we have used Paul for individual spirituality far more often than communal spirituality, which is actually what Paul intends his letters to be as they are written to churches, not individuals. Third, Paul has been ‘Protestantized’. Gorman suggests that we need to recover a more ecumenical view of Paul. He then brought up the point that Paul is actually a theologian for the church, not the systematic theologian (or linear and propositional) that he is often made out to be.

Therefore, to remedy the problem, Gorman suggests some paradigm shifts that are needed to have a fuller understanding of the apostle Paul. First, we should read Pauline literature as narrative rather than propositions or individual statements. Second, as mentioned before, Paul needs to be considered as a pastoral theologian, not a systematic theologian. Paul was a church planter who was deeply committed to his congregations and helping them live in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He was not simply an armchair theologian. Next, Paul’s view of the atonement has been simplified to a great extent. Gorman suggests that we a ‘rich and broad’ perspective of the atonement would aid in our perception of Paul. In this, I mean that the atonement is not mechanistic in nature, but a revelatory and transformative event, which extends beyond merely one’s relationship to God to include our relationships with other humans. While looking at atonement, I might as well mention justification. Gorman said that we should be moving beyond justification by faith alone to an inseparability of faith and love (works). Next, Paul was not only a private figure, but also a public, as one can see from Paul being imprisoned on account of his lack of patriotism one could say.

The main lectures would always be followed by a panel discussion followed by a question and answer period which always seemed to clarify points or thoughts. After this initial lecture, two main comments struck me. First, Tony Jones, national coordinator, wondered aloud if, in our pursuit of Paul, we have begun to shape Paul in the image we would like to believe, much as the quest for the historical Jesus by Albert Schweitzer led to a Jesus that seemed eerily similar to people of his age. In response, Gorman proposed that instead of us dissecting Paul, we must let Paul’s letters confront and let the Holy Spirit work in and through those.

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