Understanding Paul: The Early Christian Worldview of the Letter to the Romans

As I had previously mentioned elsewhere in this space, I recently spent spent some serious time with Pauls letter to the Romans. Stephen Westrholms book Understanding Paul: The Early Christian Worldview of the Letter to the Romans highlighted the importance of reading his letters in his world and not letting modern bias color how we hear the force of his ideas, arguments and concerns as necessarily foreign and somehow irrelevant to our ears today. As he says, we don’t necessarily have to share Pauls belief in God in order to see how his very real convictions challenged and shaped the very real convictions of his readers in revolutionary ways. Modern readers and academics, especially within the field of secular education have been prone to do his letters and life a dissivervice and get the content very much wrong because of a need to uphold modern presuppositions first and the force of Pauls letters second.

A couple quoted passages from the book:

Even casual readers of his letters sense that Paul was a man completely captivated by a particular way of looking at life; those who met him must have been similarly struck. Indeed, for many, Paul’s captivation proved contagious: the vision of life that Paul communicated gave new direction and significance to their lives as well. It provided them with a sense of what they should and should not do, and motivation for doing what (in the light of the vision) they were convinced was right and worthwhile. In the two millennia since then, Paul’s letters have played essentially the same role for millions of readers: they have proved to be a compelling, illuminating, and treasured guide to life.

Contemporary readers of Paul, however, soon encounter difficulties. Many do not share the assumptions that underlie Paul’s vision of life; and to make sense of his train of thought without grasping its premises is no easy matter. Scholars themselves do not always face up to the dilemma. Whatever their intentions, they foster only the parochial arrogance of the modern West if they convey just enough of Paul’s thinking (or that of any other ancient) to impress students with its “weirdness.” They achieve the same result if they avoid the “weird” and focus only on aspects of Paul’s thought related to current notions and concerns. Students, with their unchallenged modern perspective, then simply accept what suits their accustomed ways of thinking and reject the rest—hardly an educational experience! We have not understood Paul, nor can we judge him fairly, until we have grasped how what repels as well as what attracts us makes sense on his presuppositions. One need not, in the end, be convinced by Paul to comprehend him; one must, at least, see how others could find him convincing. Like all genuine encounters with foreign cultures and ways of thinking, such a stretching of our mental horizons will alert us to presuppositions of our own that we otherwise take for granted.
– Stephen Westrholm (Understanding Paul: The Early Christian Worldview of the Letter to the Romans)

Even casual readers of his letters sense that Paul was a man completely captivated by a particular way of looking at life; those who met him must have been similarly struck. Indeed, for many, Paul’s captivation proved contagious: the vision of life that Paul communicated gave new direction and significance to their lives as well. It provided them with a sense of what they should and should not do, and motivation for doing what (in the light of the vision) they were convinced was right and worthwhile. In the two millennia since then, Paul’s letters have played essentially the same role for millions of readers: they have proved to be a compelling, illuminating, and treasured guide to life.

Contemporary readers of Paul, however, soon encounter difficulties. Many do not share the assumptions that underlie Paul’s vision of life; and to make sense of his train of thought without grasping its premises is no easy matter. Scholars themselves do not always face up to the dilemma. Whatever their intentions, they foster only the parochial arrogance of the modern West if they convey just enough of Paul’s thinking (or that of any other ancient) to impress students with its “weirdness.” They achieve the same result if they avoid the “weird” and focus only on aspects of Paul’s thought related to current notions and concerns. Students, with their unchallenged modern perspective, then simply accept what suits their accustomed ways of thinking and reject the rest—hardly an educational experience! We have not understood Paul, nor can we judge him fairly, until we have grasped how what repels as well as what attracts us makes sense on his presuppositions. One need not, in the end, be convinced by Paul to comprehend him; one must, at least, see how others could find him convincing. Like all genuine encounters with foreign cultures and ways of thinking, such a stretching of our mental horizons will alert us to presuppositions of our own that we otherwise take for granted.
– Stephen Westrholm (Understanding Paul: The Early Christian Worldview of the Letter to the Romans)

,*A caveat given that I liked this quote but knowing in the current climate it could be misconstrued and coopted by political realities. The context of this quote is not addressing the abortion issue with its reference to the child. Rather it is using an extreme scenario (a gown child who is killed) to make a point about the natural existence of good and evil beyond moral evil in this world.

“The life of a child is good, a precious gift and cause for celebration. So, each in its own right, is the life of the great horned owl, the bay-breasted wood warbler, the great northern pike, and the yellow damselfish. That there are harlequin tuskfish and shingle-back skinks is good, whether or not humans are aware of their existence. Indeed, all that is, because it is and because it has a part in all-that-is, is good. Humans themselves are but a part of all-that-is, distinctive as each species is distinct, but too obviously related to the rest of creation to imagine that they alone give it meaning or worth. Like many another species, they are born, then sustained in early life by those to whom they owe their birth; they grow in stature and in knowledge; they learn to procure their livelihood; they love and are loved; they couple, reproduce, then care—at great sacrifice to themselves—for the new life with which they have been entrusted. We are but a part of this world. It is not of our design or making, nor are we the source of its goodness. For that we must look to the great Lover of life and beauty, who is eternal and good.

Yet children are murdered in this world. It does not follow that the cosmos is itself without value and indifferent to goodness; only that it has become the scene of much that is evil. The evil is real: neither good (like the life of a child) nor evil (like the murder of a child) exists only in human minds. Evil is that which resists and disrupts what is good. Yet evil is not, like good, eternal. By its very resistant, disruptive nature, evil is parasitic: it cannot exist apart from the good—to which it responds inappropriately. We live neither in a world to which we alone bring value, nor in one in which good and evil are coequal combatants. Our world is essentially and wonderfully good, but profoundly and horribly disturbed by things that ought never, and need never, have occurred.”
– Stephen Westrholm (Understanding Paul: The Early Christian Worldview of the Letter to the Romans)

Published by davetcourt

I am a 40 something Canadian with a passion for theology, film, reading writing and travel.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: