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Chapter Thirteen: Paul’s Ethic


Paul’s view of God’s kingdom required a different ethic than what Jesus had preached. Jesus had put forth an ethical scheme appropriate to the Kingdom expected shortly to appear. He meant to prepare his followers for that situation. Paul likewise looks forward to the Kingdom’s replacing the current order of the world, but he must also tell the Christian community how to act in the meanwhile. His was, however, also an ethic of the Kingdom, since Paul believed it had come with Christ’s resurrection. The implications of this belief were anything but clear.

The Spirit of Jesus taught Paul that love is the highest good. Paul often urged Christians to show love to one another and to the world. “Stand firm in the faith ... Let all you do be done in love.” (1 Corinthians 16: 14) “If we are in union with Christ Jesus, circumcision makes no difference at all, nor does the want of it; the only thing that counts is faith, active in love.” (Galatians 5: 6)

The Ethic of Love

Perhaps Paul’s best-known statement on the subject of love is found in First Corinthians: “I may speak in tongues of men or of angels, but if I am without love, I am a sounding gong or a clanging cymbal. I may have the gift of prophecy and know every hidden truth; I may have faith strong enough to move mountains; but if I have no love, I am nothing. I may dole out all I possess, or even given my body to be burnt, but if I have no love, I am none the better. Love is patient; love is kind and envies no one. Love is never boastful, nor conceited, nor rude, not quick to take offense ... When I was a child, my speech, my outlook, and my thoughts were all childish. When I grew up, I had finished with childish things. Now we see only puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we shall see face to face. My knowledge now is partial; then it will be whole, like God’s knowledge of me. In a word, there are three things that last forever: faith, hope, and love; but the greatest of them all is love.” (1 Corinthians 13: 1-5, 12-13)

Jesus also had put forth an ethic of love. This ethic superseded the Law as a requirement for the higher righteousness necessary to enter the Kingdom of God. In Paul’s case, it was not a question of qualification to enter the Kingdom of God. God granted such entrance to all believers through the grace imparted by Christ’s death. Man being inherently sinful, it is impossible to achieve love by willful acts seeking righteousness. Love comes about only through the spirit of God. It is present only in that “higher state of human existence (given by God) through the granting to them of the Spirit. Their love flows from God’s love poured out upon them and the whole world, ‘shed abroad in our hearts through the Holy Ghost.’ (Romans 5:5) Only through this have they become capable of love.” (Schweitzer, p. 167)

Paul does not base his ethic of love upon Jesus’ teaching. “He has to present it entirely in his own words as something only revealed later by the Spirit which comes from Christ, and made possible only by the Spirit.” (Schweitzer, p. 168) Therefore, the Christian doctrines concerning love come from two different sources: Jesus and Paul. For Paul, this ethic pertains to the period “between the resurrection of Jesus and its appearance at his return. In the state of its concealed existence, it is at the same time both supernatural and ethical. The world of incorruption has not yet completely broken through that of corruption.” In such a way, Paul moves away from late-Jewish eschatological expectations to the view of earlier prophets according to which “the essence of the Kingdom lies in the fact that God has granted men an ethical spirit which enables them to act according to his will.” (Schweitzer, p. 168)

Paul’s ethic pertains only to the Kingdom in a period of incomplete development. Once Jesus appears in glory, a purely supernatural Kingdom will emerge without any need for ethical guidance. Those who inhabit that Kingdom will be “perfect beings” eternally redeemed from the imperfect world. In reality, “the months and years which Paul envisaged for the concealed existence of the Kingdom ... have, however, become centuries. His saying about the present Kingdom which is righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit has been true for centuries and will be true for all time. Without knowing it, he (Paul) has presented Christianity, as it was beginning to enter on its appointed pilgrimage through the ages, as its password for the journey.” (Schweitzer, p. 169)

Concessions to the World

For a religion which foresaw the end of the world, Christianity did not “go off the deep end” in urging complete neglect of worldly concerns. Paul, even more than Jesus, acknowledged the practical realities which Christians faced in their lives. While they needed to “free themselves” of worldly attachments, that did not mean ignoring all requirements of the physical world. Paul showed, for instance, a certain ambivalence about marriage: If married, a person should stay married; if not, refrain from marriage. While the world may end soon, one would not want meanwhile to lapse into sinful desire. Make no changes potentially damaging to salvation. “The essential thing for him (Paul) is spiritual, not outward, detachment from the things of the world.” (Schweitzer, p. 169)

Paul’s teaching about work is pragmatic: “The man who will not work shall not eat.” (2 Thessalonians 3: 10) Expecting the world to end soon, the early Christian community had an economy based on property donations. There was no use in piling up goods which would disappear as soon as God’s Kingdom arrived. On the other hand, to abandon work as a requirement for using property presented an unwholesome opportunity to free-loaders. Paul “accords an importance to work because he regards idleness as a spiritual danger. It (work) is valuable in his eyes in so far as it confers the material independence which is essential for the moral personality. He demands it as a man who takes pride in living by his work as a weaver of canvas, instead of allowing himself to be supported by his congregations.” (Schweitzer, p.169. See also 1 Thessalonians 2: 9.)

Paul believed in orderly processes. Even when gifts of the spirit are displayed, “all things (should) be done decently and in order.” (1 Corinthians 14: 40) He urged Christians at Thessalonica to “live at peace among yourselves ... admonish the careless, encourage the faint-hearted ..” (1 Thessalonians 5: 14) For this reason, too, Paul recommended cooperation with worldly authorities to whom God had entrusted the responsibility for maintaining order in society. “Every person must submit to the supreme authorities. There is no authority but by act of God, and the existing authorities are instituted by him; consequently anyone who rebels against authority is resisting a divine institution.” (Romans 13: 1-2) Late Jewish tradition, responding to foreign domination, had adopted the same attitude. So long as the Jews were allowed religious freedom, they accepted political subservience. Paul extended this policy to the Christian community.

Christ’s Atoning Death

Jesus foresaw that his own death would bring about the Kingdom of God because it would cancel the prerequisite of the pre-Messianic tribulation. Living after Jesus’ death, Paul regarded this death as an atonement for sin. The crucified Jesus was a sacrificial offering whose blood redeemed many. “For all alike have sinned ... and all are justified by God’s free grace alone, through his act of liberation in the person of Christ Jesus. For God designed him to be the means of expiating sin by his sacrificial death, effective through faith.” (Romans 3: 23-25) Christ’s self-sacrifice brought forgiveness of sins.

Because Paul believed that Christ’s resurrection brought about the Kingdom of God, his views were different from those of many other Christians. Paul did not see that Christians would have their sins forgiven when the Kingdom came in the future. He thought their sins were already forgiven. Christians were already living in the Kingdom because, as members of Christ’s corporate body, they had died and risen with him. Existing in a resurrected state, they were unable to sin. They were, in Paul’s words, “dead to sin” (Romans 6: 11) even as Christ was. Sharing in his resurrection, their feet were on a “new path of life.” (Romans 6: 4)

The result of having died and risen with Christ was that baptized Christians were freed from demands of their bodies. They were free of sin and emancipated from death. Having received spirit, they lived in a spiritualized world which was the Kingdom of God. This view raises the question, however, of what happens to Christians who relapse into physical desire. They then lose spirit and become able to sin again. They are again subject to death. “It follows, my friends, that our lower nature has no claim upon us; we are not obliged to live on that level. If you do so, you must die. But if by the Spirit you put to death all the base pursuits of the body, then you will live.” (Romans 8:12-13) Like the writer of the Apocalypse of Baruch, Paul believed that sin and death came into the world through Adam. Believers might recover their primal heritage by renouncing sin and bodily desires to become resurrected like Jesus.

Opposition to Law

Paul was strongly opposed to moral claims based on the Law of Moses. It was not just that he believed that Christ’s way was superior to the Law but that the latter was an actual impediment to faith. It was holding people back from the promise of God. Paul, like many scribes of the day, believed that “the Law is valid only till the age of the Kingdom of God.” He therefore had “to oppose the view that Gentile Christians were under any obligation to take it (the Law) upon themselves. Unfortunately he could not do this by simply representing it as something that had become unimportant and unnecessary ... He had to make the tremendous claim that to take over the Law would cost them their salvation.” (Schweitzer, p. 173)

Those in the early Christian community who were looking forward to a future arrival of the Kingdom would, of course, believe that the Law was still valid. The Judaizing Christians were opposed to Paul’s position. Paul, however, argued that the Law was not given to Moses by God but by God’s angels. “Then what of the Law? ... It was promulgated through angels,” Paul said. (Galatians 3: 19) Late Jewish thinkers had come to think of God in such exalted terms that they could not conceive of his having direct contact with men. Only angels would communicate with them.

From that insight, Paul “goes on to claim that the obedience demanded to the Law does not concern God but only the angels ... he draws the conclusion that the existence of the Law points to the presence of angelic dominion. Accordingly to subject those who had previously been Gentiles to the Law after they had become Christians means, in Paul’s view, nothing less than handing them over to the dominion of the angelic powers just at the moment when these are about to become impotent, handing them over to the rule of the enemies with whom Christ is locked in struggle, because they are holding up the coming of the Kingdom and trying to stop men from taking the road to it. In taking over the Law, Gentile believers are therefore, without knowing it, giving up their existence in Christ and so losing their calling to belong to the Kingdom.” (Schweitzer, p. 174)

Even before Paul, some late Jewish scholars had argued that the Law would not help men achieve righteousness as for man had inherited an incurable tendency to sin from Adam. The Law “cannot help him (man) become good, but can only hold the vision of the good before him and so bring him to an awareness of his sinfulness.” (Schweitzer, p. 174) The Law was not in itself bad; “only it can be of no help to man in his sinfulness. It was not because they desired their well-being but because they desired their misery that the angels gave the Law to God’s people. They keep them at the attractive-looking but hopeless task of trying to fulfil the Law in order to keep them under their sway. They (the angels) leave the people believing that by striving to keep the Law they are proving themselves to be God’s people, when in reality it is ensuring that the people belong to them.” (Schweitzer, p. 174-175)

Now that Christ’s resurrection has won salvation for members of the Christian community, the “angelic powers” try frantically to maintain control by propagating a “gospel of ignorance.” They promote the false idea that Christians must first “acquire membership in the Jewish people by fulfilling all the requirements, and ... strive for the righteousness according to the Law.” (Schweitzer, p. 175) In reality, Christian believers are justified by faith, not by obedience to Law. “For our argument is that a man is justified by faith apart from success in keeping the law,” Paul said. (Romans 3: 28)

The centerpiece of Christian salvation, however, is not faith but the forgiveness of sins that comes from the mystical participation in Christ’s death and resurrection. Belonging to his corporate body, “we die to the Law, as we do to the flesh, to sin and to death.” The atoning death of Jesus justifies salvation through faith but does not in itself entail freedom from the Law. This latter principle is based on “the mystical doctrine of existence in Christ”, which Paul obtains through his “special knowledge” (as one guided by Spirit). (Schweitzer, p. 176)

Paul takes it for granted that Christians will make “a continuous effort to do what is good”, but good works alone will not gain salvation. This is won by “existence in Christ won through faith and baptism.” (Schweitzer, p. 176) On the other hand, a person guided by Spirit will necessarily show good works. Good works are a sign of salvation, if not its cause. This means that a person lacking the fruit of good works will not be someone possessing the Spirit. It is inconceivable that someone should be truly redeemed and not bear fruit.

Paul advanced the controversial doctrine that “while Gentile believers should not adopt the Law, Jewish believers ought to go on observing it.” This was not to be considered disparate treatment but obedience to the general principle that “the believer should remain in the outward condition in which he was first converted.” Therefore, Jewish converts to Jesus should remain obedient to the Law, and Gentile converts should stay outside its jurisdiction. The same principle applies to slave and free person, married and single worshiper; they should stay in their original condition. That is because “from the moment anyone is in Christ, his true nature is entirely determined by this. His natural form of existence and everything that goes with it have become meaningless.” (Schweitzer, p. 177)

Do Baptized Christians Stay Saved?

Along with other early Christians, Paul believed that the forgiveness of sins imparted by Christ’s atoning death and communal participation in his resurrection “only applies to sins committed before baptism.” (Schweitzer, p. 178) Christian baptism is not carte blanche to commit sins and be forgiven for the rest of one’s life but a forgiveness of past transgressions. The possibility that one might continue to commit sins did not trouble the early Christian community because it was assumed that God’s Kingdom would come soon. “At the time when Christian baptism arose, it could be assumed that they (individual Christians) would remain in this condition (of sanctity) simply because, in view of the proximity of the Kingdom, there would be no time for further acts of sin. Paul, writing two decades later, makes it possible to understand that, with the right will, they still had the capability of remaining in it.” (Schweitzer, p. 179)

Paul believed that baptism brings a person into the community of those who share Christ’s death and resurrection and are thereby granted entrance into the Kingdom of God. “There is no thought of an effort to obtain the assurance of forgiveness and a struggle to receive it intellectually, such as Luther presupposes. Paul shares the primitive Christian view that believers are saints in virtue of their baptism.” (Schweitzer, p. 178) As John the Baptist offered salvation through a simple ritual, so the followers of Jesus believed that Christian baptism in itself brought forgiveness of sins and thereby put one in a state of grace with respect to the Kingdom.

Still, Paul needs to deal with the fact that many baptized Christians did relapse into sin because the Kingdom in its final state failed to come as soon as expected. “Paul never comes to grips with it in its full range and all its difficulty. He seeks to check this relapse into sin by urging believers to realize its consequences.” (Schweitzer, p. 179). Paul names certain kinds of behavior - fornication, idolatry, adultery, theft, etc. - which would cause a person to forfeit the Kingdom of God. Even so, he never closes the door to the possibility that persons committing such sins may nevertheless find salvation. Only one sin is beyond forgiveness: “that of falsifying the gospel by the doctrine that Gentile believers should be made to take the Law upon themselves.” (Schweitzer, p. 180) This sin is worse than the others because instead of just harming the sinner himself it causes another person to go astray. It leads innocent people away from Christ.

Paul’s Legacy

“The Idea of the Kingdom as already present and developing appeared alongside that of the Kingdom of pure expectation in the very earliest age of Christianity and strove to replace it. Paul comes to the conclusion that it must somehow have come already, when he comes to deal with the fact of its nonappearance. In the effort to grasp the fact that it must have come in Jesus’ death and resurrection and nevertheless has not yet openly appeared, he finds the explanation in the assumption that it is at first invisible. In a transformation of the temporal into the supernatural world which is already in progress, it is developing into the Kingdom which will shortly make its visible appearance. The primitive Christian believers were quite unable to understand this view, well-founded in its own way, although it arose and is quite intelligible in the burning expectation of the Kingdom which they shared with Paul.” (Schweitzer, p. 181)

Both Paul and others in the early Christian community expected the Kingdom of God to arrive on earth in a palpable way. It obviously had not happened. The same old rotten things continued to happen in this world. Schweitzer argues that Paul was determined to find a way that the Kingdom of God could have arrived already, with Jesus’ death and resurrection, so that Christianity would have a future. Subsequent generations of Christians may not have understood their predecessors’ urgent expectations of the Kingdom, but they did have the epistles of Paul. “From them, without being acknowledged or understood, and as a doctrine of the already present Kingdom of God, it (Paul’s writing) has exercised in succeeding centuries a unique influence on the formation of the Christian faith through the ideas and presuppositions that are bound up with it.” (Schweitzer, p. 181)

Paul gave Christianity the “doctrine of the Spirit”. Without this, Christians would have had to interpret the outpouring of spirit at the feast of Pentecost as a sign that the Kingdom was near. “With nothing to point to but these, the problems which arose as the expectation of the Kingdom moved from the near to the remote future could never have been solved. As it was, Paul’s conception of the Spirit as the new vital energy coming from faith in Christ gave it the possibility of claiming and understanding that redemption was already present.” (Schweitzer, p. 181-182) Christians could accept the Gospel as true.

One gift which the Christian community received from Paul was his “doctrine of the forgiveness of sins”. Paul taught that forgiveness came through faith in Christ’s atoning death. An alternative view places the means of salvation in church sacraments. From Paul’s writings, Protestant Christians obtained the concept of “continuous forgiveness of sins”; and, from that, “the doctrine of justification by faith”. (Schweitzer, p. 182) The idea of continuous forgiveness of sin through faith in Jesus solved Christianity’s most difficult problem, which was the Kingdom’s failure to come in such a time and a manner as was expected.

In giving Christians a spiritual basis for the Kingdom, Paul has created “a deep and inward piety ... handed down from generation to generation. Those who know it find edification in those strange-looking words about being in Christ, dying and rising with him, walking in a new state of existence. They (subsequent generations of Christians) do not know what they originally meant. Nor can they give them any very clear meaning. They seem to them like incomprehensible parables of spiritual experience. They are felt as something special ... Through them men find strength, light, peace job, quietness and comfort. They walk with them on the peaks of faith. They receive all this from them (Paul’s writings) because they are words in which he who was first to reach the knowledge that it must have already come is speaking of the blessedness of life in the Kingdom.” (Schweitzer, p. 182-183)

If Jesus is the Messiah who brings the Kingdom of God, this Kingdom must already have come: that was Paul’s belief. “Dominated by this conviction, he (Paul) experienced in the spirit its present reality in the imagery of his time. The expectation of the Kingdom which would come of itself was not to find actual fulfillment. For centuries Christianity looked for it in vain.” Paul’s doctrines helped the Christian community to come to terms with this fact, and “renounce its old ideas and learn anew.” (Schweitzer, p. 183)

“The task was laid upon it (the Christian community) of giving up its belief in the Kingdom which would come of itself and giving its devotion to the Kingdom which must be made real ... We learn from this knowledge which comes to us through him (Paul) that the way in which the coming of the Kingdom will be brought about is by the coming of Jesus Christ to rule in our hearts and through us in the whole world. In the thought of Paul the supernatural Kingdom is beginning to become the ethical and with this to change from the Kingdom to be expected into something which has to be realized. It is for us to take the road which this prospect opens up.” (Schweitzer, p. 183)

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