A radical faith in a faithful Messiah: some themes in Paul’s letters

This post is in the series Rite Reading. The second of two posts introducing Paul.

In the previous post, I looked at some of the general issues involved in reading Paul’s letters. In today’s blog, I want to explore a couple of key themes. There are core ideas which crop up repeatedly in Paul’s thinking; but the specific ways he develops them belong to the different contexts of each individual letter.

One idea which crops up in a number of contexts is usually called “justification by faith”. Since some people suggest this is Paul’s main, only, or central theme, we need to spend a little bit of time looking at it here, while saving many other themes for individual letters. It’s probably also worth repeating my previously given health warning: other views of Paul are available, and here we enter one of the more controversial (and occasionally rather bad-tempered) areas of both modern scholarship and church-dividing doctrine.

Statue of St Paul in St Paul outside the Walls, Rome. Paul is commonly represented with a sword as a metaphor for the Word of God. This church is the traditional site of his burial.

Justification by faith was a key plank in the way Martin Luther interpreted Paul at the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. In Luther’s view, this was about how people could get to heaven, and he opposed it to the piety of the mediaeval church. In a nutshell, mediaeval Christians were shaped by participating in worship, pious works, almsgiving, penances, indulgences, and the good deeds of the saints. This created an (ecclesiastically very profitable) economy of salvation which was intended to help people make their earthly pilgrimage towards God, making up for their lapses and bad behaviour in purgatory, and helped along by the prayers of the faithful and the merits of Christ and the saints.

Luther cut through this economy, and the papal purse strings with it, by a simple insistence that faith – perhaps better “trust” – in Christ as having died for him (me, you, everyone) was all that was needed. When he did this, he mentally and literally translated Paul’s language of “works of the Law” into meaning the general “good works” mediaeval Christianity encouraged people to practice.

In doing so, he certainly captured two of Paul’s most important ideas. First, that trust in Christ is central to the Christian life, and second, that Christ’s crucifixion is central to how God transforms this world destined for death into the new reality of a creation restored to eternal life. On the downside, he made the Jews into examples of everything Christians shouldn’t be, and gave later German anti-Semitism some of its most forceful impetus.

In developing his contrast between faith and works, and gospel and law, he also slightly skewed what I want to suggest is Paul’s primary contrast, which is between Christ and Torah. For Paul, this goes back at least to the experience that Luke tells us happened on the road to Damascus. The Torah, as Paul read it in his youth, does not allow for the possibility of a crucified Messiah. It teaches (as we saw when looking at Deuteronomy) that there are two ways: the way of life and the way of death. Its instruction guides the people of God in the way of life. It promises blessing on the way of life, and threatens a curse on the way of death. And, as Paul notes when writing to the Galatians, it specifically states that anyone who is hanged upon a tree1 is cursed (Gal 3:13, quoting Deut 21:23). This is no doubt one of the main reasons why Paul persecutes the early Christians. They are (in his view before his conversion) making the law out to be a liar by saying God has blessed Jesus, when the law says quite clearly that Jesus is cursed.2

When Paul has his experience of Jesus, which he insists is an encounter with the risen Jesus as valid as any of the post-Easter appearances,3 he discovers for himself that, far from being cursed by God, Jesus is vindicated by God; far from being dead, he has been raised to life. Paul, as a good Pharisee, understood resurrection as the culmination of the kingdom of God for all Israel and the vindication of God’s people.4 Now he understands it as what has happened to and with Jesus; God has vindicated Jesus and declared him a truthful teacher, a faithful servant and a righteous son. From this experience, Paul develops a multifaceted contrast between Torah and Christ.

One of the principal contrasts is between two different ways of faithfulness. Torah taught one way of being faithful to God. It involved obedience to the commands of the law; this helped mark out a pure people, and gave them the appropriate means of reconciling oneself to God through the sacrificial system. Following the Maccabean crisis,5 the things that particularly marked out the purity of the people among the nations were the food-laws (especially eating pork), circumcision, and the keeping of the Sabbath. It’s therefore not surprising that these became a particular focus for some of Paul’s conflicts.

Jesus, his whole life and death, offers an alternative pattern of what faithfulness to God looks like. At its core is his willingness to embrace the ultimate impurity of a cursed death, so that he might bring the outsider, the sinner, the cursed, into the life of God. This is the vision, poetically summarised in the hymn-like section of Philippians,6 which drives Paul into the Gentile world. He casts aside his previous Pharisaic emphasis on purity, to embrace the profane world with Christ’s love. As Christ was faithful even to death on a cross, so Christians are called to follow him, so that they also may be justified – i.e. found to be on God’s side – by imitating the faithfulness of Jesus. This is why Paul can conclude his most extended argument of the theme of justification, the letter to the Romans, with the pithy ethical conclusion: “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” (Rom 15:7).

There is one other general point worth making in this introductory section on Paul’s letters. An unfortunate picture has grown of Paul as a misogynist. There are certainly some passages which can be read in ways which now look decidedly unaffirming of women, but that was generally true of the whole of Graeco-Roman culture, in which women lived out their lives under the authority of a male relative.

However, in both Acts and Paul’s letters we see him treat the husband and wife team Priscilla (also called Prisca) and Aquila as colleagues, and interestingly it is usually Priscilla who is named first. He calls Phoebe the deacon his patron (which implies a social superior).7 His long list of friends in Rome includes many women, one of whom, Junia, he refers to as an “outstanding apostle.”8 When he writes to the Corinthians, he does indeed say some very confused and confusing things about head-coverings, but this is part of setting out how women should pray and prophesy in public worship.9

More interestingly, earlier in the letter, setting out his teaching on marriage, he follows what might be thought of as conventional patriarchal teaching (“the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does”) with a rather more radical and counter-cultural egalitarianism (“likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does”).10 We might feel uncomfortable with both halves of Paul’s equation today, with our deeply rooted commitment to individuals having rights over their own body rather than another’s. However, this remains a fascinating example of Paul being more radically egalitarian than he is normally assumed to be.

There are other passages we could point to, but perhaps that is enough to show something of Paul’s radicalism and complexity, while remembering that he is still a man of his time. Sometimes our translations can be so good, that we forget the ideas being expressed in our modern words may mean something rather different in the culture of the first-century Mediterranean.11 Expecting Paul to be woke and judging him where he is not is simply an anachronism. He needs to be read against the horizon of his own day.


  1. In one of Peter’s speeches in Acts, the phrase “hanging on a tree” is also used as a way of referring to the crucifixion of Jesus (Acts 5:30).
  2. This is, I think, part of what Paul is getting at in 1 Corinthians 12:3 – “So I want to make it clear to you that no one says, “Jesus is cursed!” when speaking by God’s Spirit, and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.” (Common English Bible) The Law, which only knows the pre-resurrection reality, says there’s a curse on Jesus, the Spirit, gift of resurrection life, says Jesus is God’s vindicated Messiah – the one with God’s own name of “Lord”.
  3. Though he also seems to be aware that there was something very different about it as well: the description he uses for his experience is not so much “born again”, but “like a miscarriage” (1 Cor 15:8)
  4. See the discussion about Jesus, the Pharisees and the kingdom of God in the section on Matthew’s gospel.
  5. See the discussion of the books of the Maccabees in this post.
  6. In so far as a single short passage offers a summary of Paul’s gospel, Philippians 2:6-11 is as good a contender as any for the role.
  7. The references are Romans 16:3, 16:1.
  8. Romans 16:7 (Jerusalem Bible). Despite the name being obviously feminine, some scribes had turned this into an unknown male name, Junias, and other interpreters, like the translators of the King James Bible, has decided Paul must mean she was “of note among the apostles”. Sometimes Paul gets the blame for what his interpreters do with his writings.
  9. 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. There are good reasons (including the argument of chapter 11 about what women should wear while speaking in church) for thinking the later verses, 1 Cor 14:34-35, which command women to be silent in church, are a later addition by a scribe to Paul’s letter. In some copies of the letter they occur in a different place. This often means something a scribe originally jotted in the margin has found its way into the main text.
  10. 1 Cor 7:4. The section as a whole is longer, but continues to balance the rights of both.
  11. This introduction is already too long! But I shall say more to help locate Paul in his social context in the next posts on Romans and 1 Corinthians especially.

2 thoughts on “A radical faith in a faithful Messiah: some themes in Paul’s letters

  1. Pingback: A letter, not a compendium of theology: Paul writes to the Romans – Liturgica

  2. Pingback: When the church doesn't do "Christian": pastoral care case by case in First Corinthians – Liturgica

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