Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Approaching Paul

I am listening to Luke Timothy Johnson's lectures on The Apostle Paul.  In the first lecture he sets up his lecture series by detailing the problems and apparent contradictions within Paul's canon and within the person of Paul himself.  He ends the lecture by explaining his approach to the subject of Paul and his writings.

He says,

  1. Paul is a primarily to be understood a moral teacher.  Meaning he isn't writing theology, he is writing with concern for the moral behavior of his recipients.  This doesn't mean he isn't theological, just that his writing isn't meant as pure theology and ought to be read accordingly.
  2. Paul's letters are written to communities.  His concern for the moral behavior of his recipients is a concern for the well-being and direction of communities.
  3. Paul's writing style must be understood as expressions of rhetoric into individual contexts.  This is counter to a tendency to read him as moderns tend to read authors, as expressers of ego, universal and consistent across all letters. 

These strike me as sound angles of approach to Paul.  It also strikes me as being virtually opposite to the approach of many Paul enthusiasts.  We tend to read Paul as the theologian of the early Church.  And we tend to read him as almost exclusively speaking of and about individual faith.   The last one is less of an issue.  Paul does refer to himself a lot.  A lot.  So reading personality and biography into the his expression makes sense.  But understanding his rhetorical style, the rhetorical style of the age, and the context into which he was writing for each letter and situation is essential to understanding Paul's thought.