Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
Originally published on Quaker Universalist Conversations
Quakers are right to select Paul as one of their spiritual ancestors
Careful choice of ancestors is important to our spiritual lives of all humans. Paul is a good early selection.
Paul’s startling, reductionist interpretation of the law of the Jewish tradition, expounded in the Letter to the Galatians and restated in the Letter to the Romans, is “Love is the fulfillment of the law.”
For Paul, the Messiah experience has already happened and the law of Jewish tradition could thereafter be observed through universal love by all who followed. Paul’s message was affirmed more broadly in his later Western church elevation to the position of guide and model in his sainthood: Saint Paul.
Paul looked out more broadly beyond his Jewish background. Luke, the author of the Book of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, testified to Paul as an ecumenical Jewish philhellene, lover of Greek things, who was more indebted to classical Greek language and culture than Luke himself. Yet, Paul’s Greek was rudimentary and otherwise he was deeply embedded and focused in his own tradition of Judaism.
This cultural struggle within Paul himself is reflected in Paul’s words in his letters, which often conflict. At times these words advocate Jewish law and practices, such as circumcision, the Sabbath observance, and the dietary restrictions. Yet, at other times, his words advocated that the love imposed by the new universal gospel toward all people should bring Jews and Christians together without distinction.
In Galatians, Paul advocated this insight further and famously asserted that there was no difference between slave and free, Jew and Greek, and male and female: “You are all one in Jesus Christ” (Gal 3:28).
In the Christian tradition, despite biblical scholarship’s doubting the Pauline authorship of the Letter to the Colossians, that letter’s author restates Paul’s insight toward a universal gospel and explicitly expanded Paul’s more general universalist gospel to specifically include Scythians and barbarians (Egyptians) (Col 3:11).
The theme of Paul’s universalism within the new Christian gospel was embraced and reinforced in the Protestant tradition after the Reformation, by the influential Adolf von Harnack in the 19th century and many other Protestant theologians since. They looked to Paul as the apostle who divorced Christianity from Judaism.
However, today there is a renewed movement of theologians to reinterpret Paul’s broad insistence on neighbor love into a shortcut to satisfying Jewish law. Most recently, Karen Armstrong in St. Paul: The Apostle We Love to Hate (2015) and John Gager in Who Made Early Christianity?: The Jewish Lives of the Apostle Paul (2015) are efforts to reconcile these struggling themes of inclusion and exclusion in our larger religious tradition. Our work in understanding Paul in our Christian tradition is ongoing today.In Paul’s Letter to the Romans, in anticipation of his risky visit to Rome, Paul restates his view to love the inclusive neighbor as a normative means to fulfill the Jewish law, even though it is followed by the well-known plea to obey civic authorities as agents of God. This exhortation to support the existing government is consistent with neighbor love even as it is seen as an example of problematic pragmatism rather than pastoral counseling.
The recent theological efforts to tag Paul as both Jewish and universalist clearly affirm the universalist side of his personal struggle and that of the Christian tradition. Paul was flexible in his mission, and he did his best to reconcile these powerful themes of exclusion and inclusion of the gospel message. The Christian community struggles with this tension today.
Quakers have followed in this evolving tradition of groping toward universalism. Uncomfortable as this message appears in Paul’s preaching, Quakers implicitly embrace this Christian tradition and deal with their own internal struggles with exclusivism and universalism. Reconciling the universalist Quaker faith with Quaker practice has not been easy, since we are part of our cultures. But, the Quaker understanding of the gospel message is growing clearer.
It is fundamentally a universalist message in the Quaker tradition of discernment of an expanding scope of care and salvation for all, based on the recognition of that of God in each one. A further consequence of this affirmation is the fundamental commonality of all religions. The inclusion of those in the previously ignored categories in the human family and beyond is ever clearer.
Quakers started as a movement to re-embrace primitive Christianity, but excluded any thought of being part of the Jewish tradition. This followed during the 18th century with the Quaker exclusion of Catholics, Anglicans, Puritans and Presbyterians, among others, in a primarily exclusivist Quaker message of salvation and membership in the true community of faith.
Yet, increasingly, there was a contrasting theme of the Quaker emphasis on a message to all people. In subsequent generations, Quakers embraced Indians in the Americas, other Protestants and then Catholics and then slaves, prisoners, women and the mentally ill in the community of care.
Still, Quakers today are unclear about the inclusion of refugees, immigrants, poor, black and the newly conceived. This Quaker struggle is an ongoing struggle. Paul was together with us an early pilgrim and leader on this uncertain and evolving Quaker universalist path. Quakers benefit from retaining Paul among our spiritual ancestors.
“Icon of Saint Paul,” by Theophanes the Cretan (1546) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons