Paul Isn’t Talking to You

One thing I’ve noticed since becoming an Anglican from a Presbyterian background is the difference in focus regarding Scripture.  Anglicans prioritize the Gospels (sometimes to the neglect of the rest of Scripture), while Presbyterians prioritize the epistles (sometimes to the neglect of the rest of Scripture).

One thing that this has made more clear to me is that Presbyterians (and most other Protestants) tend to feel the need to make the epistles of the New Testament somehow directly relevant to the context of contemporary Christians.  In seeking to do so, however, it seems to me that they often misconstrue the very texts they hold in such high estate.  Most of the epistles are written into very specific contexts, and often into very particular disputes.  The attempt to make every Pauline text speak directly to a contemporary audience often has the effect of making it not speak authentically, or of short-changing the actual context and point of the text.

The epistles are no doubt important, and they no doubt speak to us in our time, but perhaps it would be wise to view them as snapshots of how the early church dealt with the kinds of issues it faced, rather than texts that can function as a playbook for modern Christians.

If I’m right about this, the epistles are more like examples of how Christian community works in the face of life than manuals for Christian living.  This is simplistic, and no doubt there exist within the epistles timeless truths and even universal ethical norms (particularly the catholic epistles), just as in the Gospels, despite their contextual situatedness, we find universal teaching but it seems like something worth considering.

In short, it is worth meditating on Romans as a text written to the early Roman church without insisting on immediately trying to figure out what it says to me, or my church.  Let’s let Paul talk to his situation and his concerns, meditate on that, and then ask ourselves what principles and wisdom we can apply from that to our own lives and contexts.  There is no need to find a one for one correspondence between every sin, virtue, or situation he describes in his letter and something we have experienced or are experiencing.

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