Saturday, June 25, 2011

It is that time of year again.  No, I don't mean the Summer, but the end of term with all its many events!  Tomorrow in Church we start reading through Romans and I have been working on a simple introduction to it.  This is the first part!

Introducing Romans - Part 1: An Independent Church

June 29 is the feast day of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, Apostles. 

The Feast of St Peter and St Paul is an important reminder that Christianity isn’t simply about Paul.  (In the light of Anonymous' comment below, I think this should read: the spread of Christianity isn't simply about Paul!)  There were other important Christian leaders and teachers, not least Saint Peter.  Paul was, of course, hugely important, but it is possible to overdo it.  In both non-Christian and Christian circles, Paul is often seen as having effectively created what we now know as Christianity. 

For some, this is a negative thing: Jesus preached the pure Gospel and Paul came along and changed it, making it into a religion to rival those of the pagans.  For others, it is a positive thing: Paul is seen as having provided the much needed theological and intellectual basis for the new movement.

The truth is, as Paul himself acknowledges, that Paul received a great deal from those who were Christians before him.  Much early Christian theology was in place before Paul became a Christian.  The reason that the picture of Christian origins is distorted is because much of the New Testament was written by Paul and the only early history of the Church, the Book of Acts, focuses on the mission and ministry of Paul.

It doesn’t do any harm, then, to remind ourselves that there were important centres of Christianity that neither Paul nor for that matter Peter founded.  Egypt, and Alexandria in particular, was an important centre and there is certainly no evidence that either Peter or Paul went there, although our Lord did, of course, albeit as a baby!  Rome itself is another example.

Both Peter and Paul are linked with Rome.  Peter is believed by Roman Catholic Christians to have been the first Bishop of Rome and by some to have founded the Church there.  While it is probable that both Peter and Paul died in Rome, they didn’t found the Church there.  The Church was already in existence in Rome before either of them went there.  So how did it come to be in existence?

We are told that on the Day of Pentecost that there were in Jerusalem ‘visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes’ (Acts 2:10).  They were amongst those who heard the disciples speaking in ‘other languages as the Spirit gave them utterance’.  It is likely that some of these became believers and took the Christian Gospel back to Rome where it seems to have thrived.

Despite its independent origins as a Church, Rome was to become closely associated with both apostles.  Apart from Rome being the place where the two apostles were martyred under Nero’s persecution of the Church, St Peter was claimed as its first Bishop, and it was to give its name to the greatest piece of Christian writing in the history of the Church: Paul’s letter to the Romans.  In this letter, Paul, undoubtedly, does show his theological genius and the letter has been of phenomenal influence on people who were themselves great theologians of the Church: Augustine in the fifth century; Luther, in the sixteenth; and Barth in the twentieth.  These and many more like them were all indebted to it.  There have been many, many books and commentaries written on it.  It is certainly the one I personally have the most books and commentaries on.

Even though it has been so closely studied, Paul’s letter to the Romans still manages to challenge and perplex. Scholars argue over the meaning of almost every verse, often reaching dramatically different conclusions. In the next post, we will begin by asking whether there is anything we can be certain of.

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