|October 9, 2010
Would Paul Ever Have Changed His Mind?
In my experience people, still deeply religious in their adulthood, seldom change their minds a great deal about the basics of their faith. It does happen, of course, but it is not a usual thing. The basics of one’s personal faith are simply too important for one to challenge. To do so, would turn one’s world upside down.
I have often wondered about the apostle Paul in this regard. In my view he was not an unreflective scribe mindlessly responding to a heavenly muse in what he wrote. Rather, he was a shrewd manipulator of people praising (1 Thess 1:6-8), cajoling (2 Cor 9:1-2; 2 Cor 8:7), currying favor (1 Cor 11:2), encouraging (1 Cor 1:4-9), chiding (1 Cor 11:17-22) those who allowed themselves to be influenced by him. He was a rather opinionated fellow who did not look kindly on any who disagreed with him (Gal 1:6-9). Nevertheless he was clearly a reflective man who tried to work through some of the implications of what he believed (in particular, Romans reflects this).
He clearly knew the difference between the tradition that he received, favored, and passed on (1 Cor 15:3-7) and his own opinion (1 Cor 7:25). Although he had a high opinion of his own ideas, he was aware that his ideas did not reach the level of a “word of the Lord”—to which it seems that he always deferred. In one incident, he figured that God had spoken to him personally (2 Cor 12:8-9), but he did not seem to think of himself as an early Christian prophet “channeling” sayings of the resurrected Lord.
Might he have said things differently, had he known how things would turn out? Clearly Paul was completely wrong about the end of the world coming in his lifetime (1 Thess 4:15-17; 1 Cor 7:25-31); surely he would have changed his mind about that—possibly coming to a position somewhat like the position of Second Peter many years later (2 Pet 3:8-10). The odd thing is that Paul based his social ethics on the near end of the world, and for that reason he may well have changed his mind about several things. For example, his usual “rule” was “stay as you are” for the end is upon us (1 Cor 7:17-20). But even in the first century he was uncomfortable telling slaves to stay slaves, and made an exception for slaves advising them to get free if they had the chance to do so (1 Cor 7:21). Without a doubt he would have changed the rule “to stay as you are,” had he known the world would still be around for nearly two thousand years after his death! Hence he might have developed a more positive outlook about marriage (1 Cor 7:8-9): he thought that people ought to remain single (1 Cor 7:27-28). He may not have changed his mind about Christian/non-Christian marriages, but he may at least have changed his mind about one of the reasons for advising against it (1 Cor 7:13-14)
I once heard a preacher make the statement that the whole Bible is the unalterable Word of God—an affirmation that only described his own personal feelings and said nothing about the nature of the Bible. But if he is correct, then one should conclude that God told Paul wrong—for the world did not end in Paul’s day. Even Jesus is credited with a statement suggesting that the Kingdom of God would come in the lifetime of those who were listening to him (Mark 9:1)—an event for which the church is still waiting! Was Jesus wrong as well?
Charles W. Hedrick
Posted by Charles Hedrick at 2:10pm
I am a former student who, bored with most of what I read in the religious arena, decided to Google you to see what you were up to. I was pleased to find this blog. Although I live in the Springfield area, for 20 years now I have worked, and continue to work, for a Brooklyn based Int'l technology company. With the diversity and nature of my work environment, I view religion from a broad and rather scientific approach. Since getting my MA in Religious Studies, I also got an MA in Counseling and work part time for a United Way counseling agency. As a counselor working in Springfield area, I run into all kinds of religious mindsets. As such, the study of religion remains a passion for me. I am looking forward to reading your intellectual, yet compassionate ideas and research to this regard.
I've always wondered if the millenarian ideal is dead or not. I think that many people continue to live as though there will be an end to the world. That book series, (Left Behind), seems to have a huge appeal to Americans today. And certain secular movements are very similar in their world view. I think particularly of the environmental movement-- the idea of global warming, collapse of renewable resources and so on-- which not only posits an end in view, but visualizes the scenario of the final days, and even includes a plan for salvation (for the faithful). So do you really need an expiration date for the world to live as though the end is nigh? I don't know that Paul would have changed his mind if he'd known his date was unreliable...
Hi Dr. Hedrick: