PAUL THE APOSTLE
Radical Faith and Perennial Theology
By Bishop Sarhad Y. Jammo
Wednesday, October 29, 2008
To recognize Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah and Savior represented for Saul/Paul a defining moment of radical fulfillment. In Paul, two cultures found an authentic and valid representative: the Scriptural Israelite and the Hellenistic Gentile. Though the earthly provenance of Jesus verifies that he is a descendant from the lineage of Abraham of Ur of the Chaldeans, the identification of himself as the “Son of Man” and the “Son of God” positions him at the center of the human history in its totality.
For a well-informed Israelite, living at the time of Augustus Caesar, God had definitely intervened in human history, made a selection of a specific people to become his own, educated that people and prepared them, mainly through the preaching of the prophets, to grow up in spirituality so that they may yearn for salvation by the national Messiah. Nevertheless, in a different way, but very much complementary with the former one, God prepared as well the human family of the nations to expect the revelation of the King of Kings, the Highest Pontiff, and the ultimate prophetic Legislator to collect the entirety of humanity and guide it toward one common divine destiny. It was totally unexpected and baffling that both these preliminary courses would join each other on Golgotha, at the empty tomb, and in the Upper Room of Pentecost to usher in new era of elevated humanity.
Saul of Tarsus, the Pharisee, opposed and resisted vehemently the concept of a universal Savior, resulting in the bridging between the two disparate segments of a chosen Nation and unqualified nations, butthe radiation of Light stemming from the Risen Lord was stronger than his presumptions. Saul, once struck by the celestial thunder on the way to Damascus, could not escape capturing the magnitude of implications for the human race – even for the whole universe – resulting from the divine final revelation of Self as expressed in the life, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus the Nazarene.
Once the full identity of Jesus of Nazareth had been recognized and the value of his death and resurrection acknowledged, Saul becomes Paul the Apostle, to put to work and exploit his formidable genius, ardent zeal, scriptural knowledge, Hellenistic philosophy, and Roman culture, in the service of his Lord and Savior and the up-building of his historic Body, the Church. The theological doctrine in his letters represents lofty peaks of intellectual reflection on the meaning of creation, of human life and destiny, of the dramatic reality of sin, of the gift of justification in the blood of Christ, absolution by divine Mercy, and eternal life by the Holy Spirit. What a revelation!
The existential problem of the human race is being guilty of sin since the beginning of its history, and living in world contaminated by sin. God, the Just, must give a punitive judgment against all the children of man, as described in the narrative of the fall of first parents in Genesis 3. As for the Sin (or sins) of the World and those of Israel, Jeremiah gives us a compelling reminder (7:8-11):
“Behold, you trust in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, burn incense to Ba’al, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, `We are delivered!’ — only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, I myself have seen it, says the LORD. Go now to my place that was in Shiloh, where I made my name dwell at first, and see what I did to it for the wickedness of my people Israel. And now, because you have done all these things, says the LORD, and when I spoke to you persistently you did not listen, and when I called you, you did not answer, therefore I will do to the house which is called by my name, and in which you trust, and to the place which I gave to you and to your fathers, as I did to Shiloh. And I will cast you out of my sight, as I cast out all your kinsmen, all the offspring of E’phraim. “As for you, do not pray for this people, or lift up cry or prayer for them, and do not intercede with me, for I do not hear you.”
Ezekiel is no less dramatic (5:5-17):
“Thus says the Lord GOD: This is Jerusalem; I have set her in the center of the nations, with countries round about her. And she has wickedly rebelled against my ordinances more than the nations, and against my statutes more than the countries round about her, by rejecting my ordinances and not walking in my statutes. Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: Because you are more turbulent than the nations that are round about you, and have not walked in my statutes or kept my ordinances, but have acted according to the ordinances of the nations that are round about you; therefore thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I, even I, am against you; and I will execute judgments in the midst of you in the sight of the nations. And because of all your abominations I will do with you what I have never yet done, and the like of which I will never do again. Therefore fathers shall eat their sons in the midst of you, and sons shall eat their fathers; and I will execute judgments on you, and any of you who survive I will scatter to all the winds. Wherefore, as I live, says the Lord GOD, surely, because you have defiled my sanctuary with all your detestable things and with all your abominations, therefore I will cut you down; my eye will not spare, and I will have no pity. A third part of you shall die of pestilence and be consumed with famine in the midst of you; a third part shall fall by the sword round about you; and a third part I will scatter to all the winds and will unsheathe the sword after them. “Thus shall my anger spend itself, and I will vent my fury upon them and satisfy myself; and they shall know that I, the LORD, have spoken in my jealousy, when I spend my fury upon them.”
How can a man be just before God? (Job 9:2; 25:4).
God’s intervention and help is the way for deliverance, his love will make him provide the means to ultimate redemption, and biblical faith is the channel to it. Isaiah is an eloquent exponent of the divine salvation (Is. 43):
“But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
“Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old.
Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.
The wild beasts will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches;
for I give water in the wilderness,
rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people,
the people whom I formed for myself that they might declare my praise.
“Yet you did not call upon me, O Jacob; but you have been weary of me, O Israel!
You have not brought me your sheep for burnt offerings,
or honored me with your sacrifices.
I have not burdened you with offerings, or wearied you with frankincense.
You have not bought me sweet cane with money,
or satisfied me with the fat of your sacrifices.
But you have burdened me with your sins, you have wearied me with your iniquities.
“I, I am He who blots out your transgressions for my own sake,
and I will not remember your sins.
Put me in remembrance, let us argue together;
set forth your case, that you may be proved right.
Your first father sinned, and your mediators transgressed against me.
Therefore I profaned the princes of the sanctuary,
I delivered Jacob to utter destruction and Israel to reviling.
St. Paul exposed his doctrine regarding Justification in the context of anti-Pharisaic polemic, in which emphasis was placed on a system of laws and prescriptions. Paul understood the Pharisaic teaching from within; he had been formally trained in its schools as he states: “as regards the justice of the Law, I was blameless” (Phil 3:6); therefore the controversy made his argument sharp and blunt: there was, is, and can be only one true way of justification, which is the gratuitous gift of divine forgiveness offered to man in Christ and received by him in baptismal faith. The letters to the Galatians and Romans contain the clearest formulation of the Pauline position.
The transition from being a sinner to being a justified man: “yet we know that a man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ, and not by works of the law, because by works of the law shall no one be justified.” (Gal 2:16).
Such justification is based exclusively on God’s fidelity to his promises; it is purely gratuitous, for man cannot gain it by his own works (Gal 3:21-26): “Is the law then against the promises of God? Certainly not; for if a law had been given which could make alive, then righteousness would indeed be by the law.” But the scripture consigned all things to sin, that what was promised to faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. Now before faith came, we were confined under the law, kept under restraint until faith should be revealed. So that the law was our custodian until Christ came, that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a custodian; for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.”
By his faith the believer receives a new existence and a new life in Christ:
“I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification were through the law, then Christ died to no purpose.” (Gal 2:20-21).
Faith, as explained in Pauline letters, is no mere intellectual act of assent but a commitment of the entire being to God’s plan of salvation as achieved in Christ, culminating in his death and resurrection. This is specifically the baptismal faith as clarified in Rom 6:3-9:
“Do you not know that those who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For, he who has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him. For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.”
If justification is taken to mean in Paul that act of God which starts a believer on his experience of salvation, sanctification has much a broader range. It is the process thereby inaugurated, presided over by the Spirit, and mounting up to a maturity definable in terms of Christ’s own perfection:
“So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.”
II Thess 2:13-14:
“But we are bound to give thanks to God always for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God chose you from the beginning to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
This process will be completed at the time of Christ’s final intervention: (I Thess 5:23): “May the God of peace himself sanctify you wholly; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Salvation as a biblical term must be understood as a future reality which we enjoy even now through faith. It cannot be known apart from faith. Paul writes: “Salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed” (Rom 13:11); or again: (8:24) “by hope were we saved”; and again (5:9): “We shall be saved from the wrath of God through him.” Therefore it could be said that salvation indicates in Paul the concept of the ultimate effect of the divine intervention for our sake.
When we say that He has saved us, it is meant to include the entirety of the course of eternal life, given to us through the divine mercy, as in Titus 3:5:
“He saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit, which he poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life.”
Paul, alone among the New Testament writers, explicitly connects salvation to the righteousness of God working through history, as in Romans 1:16 “For I am not ashamed of the gospel: it is the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.”
Christians are those whose “citizenship is in heaven, and from it we also await a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil 3:20). As Christians, we live in faith, “awaiting our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all iniquity and to purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.” (Titus 2:13).