Given a cultural perception of Paul as a preacher of dogma and bigotry—a perception I’ve been swayed by for a long time—I’ve been consistently surprised to find an abundance of verses like this: “But this I admit to you, that according to the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the God of our ancestors, believing everything laid down according to the law or written in the prophets. I have a hope in God—a hope that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the unrighteous” (Acts 24:14-15). This surprised me, mostly, because I have the same hope, and I’ve been told this hope is naive and unbiblical.

Interestingly, Paul’s community told him the same thing about his beliefs. Criticisms like, “‘This man is persuading people to worship God in ways that are contrary to the law’” (Acts 18:13), were not uncommon. This kind of public reception routinely landed Paul in court, which is where he defended himself with his statement of hope above. The community around him was uninterested in change, so much so that they saw Paul’s “foreign divinity” (Acts 17:18) as a threat. It’s interesting how history repeats itself. Even a thing like religious anti-intellectualism, which we act as if we’ve only just discovered recently, has always been around. During another time when Paul was defending himself in court, the emperor Festus exclaimed, “‘You are out of your mind, Paul! Too much learning is driving you insane!’” (Acts 26:24).

So, in many ways, Acts presented a gracious vision of faith to me that betrayed nearly every bias I brought to it. That was a shock. Yet scenes like the above just kept occurring, with Paul arguing for a more inclusive worldview as the old one stagnated. His vision of God existed in a constant state of growth. Paul’s creativity made me excited to keep reading, honestly. So I moved on to Romans, and this trend continued even more explicitly. Like Romans 7:6, where Paul says, “But now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which made us captive, so that we are slaves not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit.” The law he’s referring to contains the Ten Commandments. He was arguing for a new interpretation of them that differed from centuries of practice.

Paul’s vision of goodness is, shockingly, based on subjective morality, another thing I have been told is unbiblical. Later in Romans: “Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds” (14:5-6). And, “I know and am persuaded that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean” (14:14). And, “The faith that you have, have as your own conviction before God. Blessed are those who have no reason to condemn themselves because of what they approve. But those who have doubts are condemned if they eat, because they do not act from faith; for whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (14:22-23). I take all this to mean that a lot of morality is based on our perception of a thing, which I thought was a modern construct. Though these verses grew from the topic of food—a point I’m not sure reduces the theological consequences of the statements themselves, given the cultural importance of ritual surrounding food at the time—they fit comfortably within the patterns of thought that Paul uses across the board. Consider his logic surrounding circumcision, for instance. Or this statement: “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean” (Acts 10: 28).

Again and again, Paul creates a kind of dualism in his theology, where even a good thing, a holy thing, can foster sin. After he says we are discharged from the law, he says, “What then should we say? That the law is sin? By no means!…Apart from the law sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died, and the very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me” (Romans 7:7-10). This is a bold statement. Obeying the law hurt him. Of course, this concept of something being both/and makes discerning sin far too difficult for any set of rules or doctrine to account for. It necessitates a vision of relative morality. And yet, in an ironic twist, there are Christians who accuse “secular” people of embracing relative truth, as if this is opposed to the Bible’s teachings. Meanwhile, Paul: “Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand” (Romans 14:4). The Lord is able to, and will, uphold the “servants of another.” Another lord’s laws, another lord’s expectations, another lord’s faith. The resurrection of the righteous and the unrighteous. “What therefore you worship as an unknown God…”

But what is our morality relative to? How should the individual discover what is good and true? There is a reason Paul subverts the law, and it is built around a vision of love and grace. While affirming the conflicting convictions of his fellow believers, he stakes his reason for doing so on this statement: “Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” (Romans 14: 19). I take this to mean that goodness, rather than depending on any one law, is anything that encourages peace, anything that encourages growth. This concept is so important that he goes so far as to reframe the Ten Commandments around it, saying, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is a fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13:8-10). Despite this, in yet another ironic twist, it is common for certain Christians to judge and condemn and call it love. This has resulted in rift between Christians and non-Christians, as well as Christians and other Christians, yet it continues to be defended on the grounds that it would be unloving not to. Have these actions created peace? Have they fostered growth? Consider how rapidly Paul’s church grew. Consider the dwindling numbers of our own.

Above, we have arguments for something like universalism, subjective morality, evolving theology, and even hints of panentheism. Of course, he also speaks of judgement, but that doesn’t make the above statements any less true. Dualism again. Two opposing things can both be true at once—another thing I’ve been convinced of, another thing that betrayed my expectations of Paul. And yet, it’s worth saying, he does define judgment differently than I was lead to believe. I thought God’s judgment was for atheists or weaker Christians or something. When judgment is brought up, however, that is almost never the case: “There will be anguish and distress for everyone who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek” (Romans 2:9-11). Notice he includes no mention of the Way, or faith, or belief. It does depend on Christ, however. Paul goes on to say:

When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law unto themselves. They show what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all (Romans 2:14-16).

And love, Paul says, is the fulfilling of the law. On this, and many things, he and I are in profound agreement.

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