“Paul? What an awful man – so bigoted, so harsh and unyielding. Why I hate the man!” This sentiment is all too familiar to anyone who has undertaken serious Christian conversation with difficult unbelievers. Despite the title, Paul really doesn’t need anyone to come to his defence. The record of his conversion, acts, and teachings is available to be read in the New Testament, which is part of the Word of God. Nevertheless, as part of our “War of Ideas” series, it seems appropriate to discuss Paul, since he seems to be the target in much of the anti-Christian discourse of the Western “tolerance”-brigade. This topic will be broken over several posts.
These are the sorts of charges usually levelled at Paul.
- Paul had an overly negative view of humanity.
- Paul was biased and harsh against homosexuals.
- Paul was a turn-coat, abandoning true Judaism.
- Paul was a sinner: he persecuted Christians.
- Paul was misogynistic.
- Paul tolerated slavery instead of fighting against it.
- Paul’s doctrine of “predestination” makes God out to be a moral monster.
And on it goes… A blog-post is far too short a space to provide a decent rebuttal to such charges, but I think it is appropriate to make some comment, if only to provide a short challenge-piece for any non-Christian who visits AATW.
Was Paul’s view of humanity overly negative? The problem with this charge is that it is rather vague. Short of doing a statistical analysis comparing the number of positive statements about humanity with the number of negative ones in the Pauline corpus (and how would we determine which statements to use?), we shall have to approach this from a more abstract angle. Underneath this charge are two problems we need to deal with:
A) What should one’s view of humanity be? “People are basically good” is a statement people like to throw around, but it is an assumption and needs to be proven. Christ himself said, “Why do you call me good? There is none good but one, that is, God.” (Mk. 10:18)
B) What sort of position are we in to have a proper view of humanity? Given the fact that we are humans, our viewpoint is likely to be biased in favour of self-exculpation. Even if we reject Paul’s statement in Romans that humanity’s mind has been darkened by the fall, the fact remains that we know we are capable of error. The principle of paradigm shift in scientific methodology takes this as a given.
Granted, Paul makes a number of points about what fallen humanity is capable of, but our history and daily news bears him out: as a species we do terrible things. But Paul doesn’t leave it there. In glorifying God, Paul glorifies what God can do in regenerate man. Here’s a sample of some positive Pauline statements regarding man:
“I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.” (Rom. 12:1)
“And when I come, whomsoever ye shall approve by your letters, them will I send to bring your liberality unto Jerusalem.” (1 Cor. 16:3)
“And my trial which was in my flesh you despised not, nor rejected; but received me as an angel of God, even as Christ Jesus. Where is then the blessedness you spoke of? For I bear you record, that, if it had been possible, you would have plucked out your own eyes, and have given them to me.” (Gal. 4:14-15)
Now regarding Paul’s stance against homosexual acts, there can be no doubt (although some have tried to introduce some): he considered such acts to be sinful. However, he can hardly be considered a “lone-wolf” in this matter. Other NT writers espouse the same view: Peter (2 Pet. 2:6ff); Jude (Jude 7).
There are those who try to separate Paul from Jesus: they claim that Jesus taught “love in all its forms” and that Paul hijacked the Jesus movement and introduced bigotry. However, if we are going to admit the possibility of God and the supernatural, then we also have to take seriously Paul’s claim to have received revelation from Christ (Gal. 1:12). Now, if Paul wasn’t a true follower of Jesus, why would he be a Christian? The Christians were persecuted by the Judeans and the Gentiles of the Roman world. Paul could have lived a much more comfortable life by remaining a Pharisee.
Furthermore, Christ does speak of Sodom and Gomorrah in the context of negative judgement (Matt. 10:15; 11:23-24; Luke 10:12; 17:29), and He claims to uphold and fulfil the Torah (Matt. 5:17-19) – and the prohibition against homosexual acts is part of the Torah (Lev. 18:22).
The main point to take away from this is that discussion needs to be about the ethics of homosexual acts, not Paul’s pronouncements on the matter: he is hardly unique for his faith or his times, and he doesn’t dwell on the matter, but mentions it in the context of other practices he deems sinful.