Saturday, March 14, 2009

Well here is the first in my new series on Paul and the issue of works.  This first post raises some questions that I think need to be answered especially in the context of much that is being written at the moment about Paul and what he taught.

1.  Works of the Law and Good Works: Some points with which to begin

St Paul in Galatians is at his most polemical.  Some Jewish believers from Jerusalem have visited churches that he founded and have encouraged them to get circumcised and keep the law of Moses.  The believers there are willing to do this.  Paul tells them they are betraying the Gospel of Christ and that Christ will be of no use to them if they continue.  He has some very strong words about what he thinks of the Jerusalem visitors.  The following are 12 points I would have wanted to put to Paul and have him answer for himself if I had been around at the time!

1.  Paul, you were formerly a Pharisee before becoming a Christian and a very zealous one at that.  You know Judaism and the Law better than most.  Indeed, you still keep certain Jewish rituals and practices. You had no problem, for example, circumcising your most trusted co-worker, Timothy.

2.  Ironically, some of your main opponents seem to be Pharisees who have themselves also become believers.  It was they that spoke out at the so-called Jerusalem Council demanding that the Gentile believers be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses.

3.  Presumably, they like you believe that Jesus is the Messiah and that he died and rose again.  You have, in other words, a great deal in common.

4.  And yet, in your letter to the Gentile believers in Galatia, you are extremely critical of them (or at least of those like them) claiming that they are preaching a different Gospel to you and deserve to be damned for it.  Even allowing for the rhetoric, this seems to be an extreme position to take about people with whom you apparently have so much in common.  It is not immediately clear why you feel quite so strongly.

5.  You agree that the Galatians should not live immorally and that they should live good lives.  In other words, that they should do, in fact, much of what the Law commands.  And yet you tell them that you are completely opposed to them getting circumcised and keeping the Law.  Furthermore, you even suggest that they will lose their salvation if they do.

6.  I can understand just why you might prefer Gentile believers not to be told that they have to be circumcised when they don't want to be, but the Galatians don't seem themselves to see it as too much of a problem.  You tell them not to keep the Law, but warn them against doing things that the Law itself forbids.  Would it be really so bad if they willingly got circumcised?

7.  I again understand why you are concerned that there should be unity between Gentile and Jewish believer.  I agree that Peter and Barnabas refusing to eat with Gentile believers because of what James' friends said was terrible, but aren't you going to the opposite extreme in saying that James' friends are enemies of Christ?

8.  It is clearly right that if God has accepted the Gentiles then so must we.  I think we are all agreed on that.  The issue seems to be what must the Gentile believers do now that they are accepted by God and us.  You agree that they must live to the same moral standards as Jewish believers.  You just don't agree that Gentile believers should adopt any of the rituals that the Jewish believers practise - even if they want to!

9.  Your fellow Jewish believers are arguing that Gentiles are welcome to become members of the Church.  You don't deny this.  Like you, they want all, Jewish and Gentile believer alike, to be one in Christ and equal in Him.  They just happen to think that this can best be achieved if the Gentiles do what God himself has always required so that both Jew and Gentile believer are alike.  No-one is disputing that the Law is God's Law.  

10.  You suggest that Gentile and Jewish believers cannot be one and have fellowship if Gentiles have to be cirucmcised.  Isn't, in fact, the reverse the case?  And is it not the case that by not allowing the Gentile believers to be circumcised, while you yourself still live as a Jew and continue to circumcise people when you want to, you are creating a two tier Church?

11.  You say that the Gentiles should not be circumcised.  Your Jewish colleagues say that they should.  You are very critical of the Law, they are not.  But both you and they live in much the same way.

12.  Given that we all believe the same when it comes to the life, death and resurrection of our Lord and that we all seek to follow him as the Messiah, aren't you over-reacting somewhat?  If it enables the Church to be truly one wouldn't it be better to allow circumcision?  Are you really prepared to divide the Church and condemn fellow-believers over this?  

And if you are, why?

No comments: