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Meeting God in Paul by Rowan Williams

May 16, 2016

MGIPForget the notion that Williams’ writing is dense. This is chatty and colloquial. It should help preachers to get Paul ‘right’ (perhaps supplemented by some of Tom Wright’s commentaries).

Divided into six sections, there are discussion questions suitable for Lent groups. (Though some were more trivial than others and I decided to prioritise them so as to avoid groups getting bogged down before getting to the more important questions.)

Williams admits that many hold negative views about Paul as misogynistic and homophobic but he points to the important significance of Paul being a Roman citizen for his view of the Church as a body.

As a Pharisee trained by Gamaliel (who was succeeded by the liberal Hillel) he wanted a renewed, not a supplanted, Judaism and did not believe in crude penal substitutionary atonement.

I’d never thought of Paul as being a widower but if he was a rabbi then he is most likely to have been married. Nor that his thorn in the flesh was poor eyesight – hence his seeing through a glass darkly.

The book was so popular in our benefice that several people purchased copies, on the recommendation of others, without having been part of our Lent group.

Annoyingly, there’s no biblical index of passages cited.


Both believers and non-believers are quite likely to have picked up a set of assumptions about Paul ­that he had a problem about women’s role in the Church, that he was against sex in general and homosexuality in particular, that he supported slavery, that he changed the simple teach­ing of Jesus into a complicated philosophy or mythology, and so on. There are plenty of good twenty-first-century reasons, it seems, to write him off.

even within the Empire there were lots of different ways of belonging (or half-belonging) – slaves, migrants, citizens. And by the time you got to the barbarians who lived outside the Roman borders (frightful people like Celts), then of course you were in an entirely different world.

Being a Roman citizen was a bit like having a British passport in the early twentieth century – you could go more or less anywhere and expect to be treated properly. Being a citizen was no small matter. And to understand Paul’s world, we have to understand forst and foremost that this is a world in which nothing exists that corresponds to our idea of universal human rights. There was no such thing as general equality before the law.

we also hear about Gamaliel from Jewish sources: we know that he was the grandson of the great Hillel, perhaps the most famous of the first-century Jewish rabbis, and that he inherited a lineage of teaching and tradition which took a fairly gentle and moderate view of the legal obligations binding on religious Jews. There are several stories in Jewish texts about the rivalry between Hillel’s disciples and those of Shammai, a much more rigorous teacher. Gamaliel emerges in the Jewish texts as a very impressive figure indeed. There is one text that says, ‘Since the death of Rabbi Gamaliel, true knowledge of the law has passed away from Israel. And yet, oddly, we have very few specific judgements ascribed to Gamaliel, as if his reputation was just a little bit clouded — and it is tempting to think that this had something to do with the fact that he had recommended clemency towards the early Christians, perhaps even that he had been the teacher of the notorious `Saul from Tarsus’.

So I don’t think that Paul’s record as a persecutor of the Church suggests that the story of his relationship with Gamaliel is untrue. On the contrary, it’s not at all unusual for a gifted and enthusiastic student to revolt very sharply against a revered teacher. And there, in the story of Stephen’s speech, we have what may have been the watershed, the provocative moment, when Paul realized that he could not go along with his old teacher’s tolerant attitude to this new heretical group; the moment when he decided he would, against all his instincts, have to throw in his lot with what his colleagues regarded as the wealthy, greedy and self-perpetuating priestly caste of the Temple…. Paul belongs in a world where it is of first importance to know exactly where you stand. Inside or outside? A citizen or a migrant? A free person or a slave? A Jew or a Gentile? A Pharisee or a Sadducee? A man or a woman? A world where the lines are deeply etched and there is very little possibility of crossing them, a world of complex identity politics.

We know that his health was uncertain. We know that when he arrived in Galatia, so he tells us in his letter to Christians in the region (Galatians 4.13 —14), he was suffering from an ailment which was something of a challenge to his hearers. What was this? It could have been epilepsy, as some have suggested; it could also have been some kind of eye disease which would distort his face. Interestingly, there are a couple of cases in the Acts of the Apostles where Paul is described as ‘looking intently, or ‘peering’ or ‘screwing up his eyes’ (for example Acts 23.1); and it may be no accident that he describes the Galatians as having been ready to tear out their eyes and give them to him (Galatians 4.15). It is not at all unlikely that he suffered from one of the countless forms of eye disease carried by parasites in the Middle East, which again would explain why he looked rather unattractive with swollen eyes and perhaps pus-laden eyelids. Famously, in his second letter to Corinth, he writes (12.7 ff.) of having been given a ‘thorn in the flesh’ — a long-standing ailment which was humiliating and restricting for him. Whether it was epilepsy, eye disease, lameness or some other kind of disability we don’t know.

A passionate man, powerfully, even over­whelmingly impressive in some ways, despite his admitted weakness as a public speaker (2 Corinthians 10.10, 11.6); and sometimes, on the basis of the letters, manipulative and possessive. When his anger runs away with him he can be seriously abusive towards his enemies (Galatians 5.12 is one of the more dramatic examples); even when his anger isn’t quite running away from him, he can be fairly fierce. Beginning a chapter in his letter to the Galatians (3.1) with the words ‘You idiots’ is perhaps not the best way of getting the sympathy of his readers.

So when people talk – as many will still do – about the great divide between Jesus and Paul, bear in mind that Jesus’ open­ing of the doors to those who were in the eyes of most people ‘not qualified’ to belong in the people of God lies behind Paul’s disturbing idea of a universal welcome.

So how exactly does this freedom work? If it’s freedom from anxiety about an unknown and unpredictable God, it’s freedom from all those behaviours that go with such anxiety – the passionate self-concern that seeks its own secur­ity, the fear that others are doing better or are more deeply loved than we are, the search for gratifications of every sort. It is a freedom for new kinds of relationship in which we are at last able to contribute to each other’s life and well-being instead of threatening and feeling threatened by each other. So it is also a freedom to bring good news to each other. Christian freedom is the liberty to let God do God-like things in you – to give life, to promise 1 and reconciliation, to communicate hope in word

So it won’t do just to say that Christians are libel `law. They are not subject to the written law in the same way that God’s people have been in the past, but this simply  means that what that law aimed at is now achieved in other ways, from the inside out, as it were. There is a law at work in us, a pattern of regular action – ‘the law of Christ. Paul spells this out in 1 Corinthians 9.21, saying in we are now being ‘shaped’ by Jesus.

It’s a vintage piece of Paul: generous, warm and manipulative all at once, and soaked through with a richness of theo­logical understanding.’ What makes the letter so important is that something very complicated has apparently happened to the simple relation between slave and slave owner. There is now – from Paul’s point of view – a place where one of them is no longer simply a slave, the other no longer simply a slave owner: a place where they look each other in the eye.

About a hundred years after Paul wrote those words two young women, Perpetua and Felicity, faced execution together as Christians in Carthage, one a slave, the other her mistress. They walked into the arena hand in hand to be mauled by the wild animals and eventually dispatched by the execu­tioner’s sword. Perpetua owned Felicity; and you didn’t, on the whole, walk hand in hand with people you owned. And this little vignette, from the second Christian century, is a reminder of how Paul’s language about seeing your neighbour not as belonging to you but as belonging to Jesus began to make a difference. It took centuries for the Church to catch up and put it all together and work out the implications. Not until the Middle Ages do you have people saying quite clearly that (for example) slaves can’t be prevented from marrying, or entering a religious order, or even owning property. Not until the eighteenth century do you have a real campaign against slavery. But Paul, whether he realized it or not, was laying the trail, lighting the fuse. Through all those centuries, what you can hear is the fizzing of the powder as it gradually moves towards the great explosion at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century, that explosion whose echoes we heard again when we com­memorated a few years ago the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade.

The community of believers, as he understands it, is an organism, in which the welfare of the whole depends on the welfare of every part, where the sickness of any part is the sickness of the whole. Paraphrasing Paul, we could say that when I have a cold, I have a cold – not my nose or my throat alone, but I; the whole of my body is involved.

in one of those intriguing throwaway remarks so typical of his great letters, Paul says, ‘The wife’s body does not belong to her. It belongs to her husband’ – a perfectly routine point of view for the period. But he then goes on to add that ‘The husband’s body doesn’t belong to him. It belongs to his wife. And that is the point at which eyebrows would be raised in any first-century audience, the point of shock. Everybody ‘knows’ that women belong to men in marriage; but as far as we can tell, no one seems to have suggested before that men belong to women. What is so often most interesting in Paul is not where he reproduces the received wisdom of his culture but where the unsettling newness of the gospel pushes him to a quite new depth of understanding of mutuality

It is not quite – despite long-standing conventional readings of this – that God has required Jesus to take our punishment. This is not what Paul is arguing at this point. It is more that God, through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, has brought into the world what he himself most deeply is – selfless love; and thus has made possible a relation with himself that was not possible before.

the voice challenges the young Saul with the words, ‘Why are you persecuting me?’ Not, ‘Why are you persecuting my friends?’ This is not just a vision of an individual dead man who is somehow mysteriously alive with God; it is a vision of someone in whose life the lives and sufferings of his friends and associates are entirely bound up. From the earliest days of Christianity, Paul’s readers have seen in these words the root of Paul’s understanding of Jesus as having a living body on this earth in the lives of his followers, those human beings who are united with him by the breath of his Spirit.

I can’t resist mentioning here something I heard many years ago from a distinguished senior bishop of the Church of England who had been brought up in a very strict Protestant sect. When he began to study the Bible seriously as a teenager and to read 1 Corinthians, he was surprised to discover that the Church of the Bible was apparently full of greedy, lecherous, drunken, disreputable characters, who needed the stern words of St Paul to bring them into line. And having recognized the nature of the biblical Church, he duly decided to join the Church of England . . . Not a completely serious defence of the C of E, perhaps. But it underlines the point that what matters about the Church is less our achievement than God’s gift.

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From → Biblical

  1. Ian permalink

    This is a very good book. I suspect the reason it is chatty, rather than dense (as Archbishop Williams’ books certainly can be) is because it is based on a series of Lent talks he gave at Canterbury Cathedral.

    I think it is particularly helpful for the way it puts Paul in his context. It shows why Paul (and Christianity) were so radical.

  2. Agree – though I’ve heard Rowamn preach chatty sermons too – I think his writing became dense when he was archbishop and was awarwe how his words could be misintrerpreted.

    • Ian permalink

      He is a brilliant speaker, it is true. But when he puts pen to paper! I am not sure it was becoming ABofC that did it. Lost Icons, for example, written before then, is pretty hard going (or I found it so)

  3. I haven’t read Lost Icons – the reviews didn’t make it sound interesting enough to me. Maybe I find his style easier to read because I am a theology graduate. He’s harder for the ‘intelligent layman/woman’. But definitely writing better now he isn’t aty Lambeth.

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