South Africa's "New Reformation Network"

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 2 January 2008 0 Comments
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I just finished reading a provocative book,
St. Paul Versus St. Peter: A Tale of Two Missions, by
Michael Goulder. In it he argues, very persuasively in my
opinion, that there were actually two ways of seeing Jesus from
the very beginning of the early Church: Peter's way and Paul's
way. Theirs was a bitter battle, which can be inferred clearly
from Paul's writings about "those who would lead you astray."
Goulder's point was that while Peter won some battles, Paul won
the war.

One school of thought formed around Peter and
the Jerusalem-based followers like James, Jesus' brother. They
held Jesus to be special in many ways, but underneath it all a
human being like the rest of us, who was entered into by God's
spirit at his baptism, which spirit then departed his body on the
cross. The Petrine position was that the kingdom had been
ushered in via Jesus' life, death, and resurrection: the "kingdom
now" view. He also believed that people needed to practice
Jewish laws concerning food, the Sabbath, and circumcision to be
followers of Jesus.

The other position was Paul's, that Christ was
a divine being all along, whose death and resurrection ushered in
only the possibility of God's kingdom coming: the "kingdom later"
view. In addition, followers did not have to follow Jewish law
to be members, since Jesus was the sacrifice that satisfied all
those requirements. (Also, persuading adult Greeks and Romans not
to eat meat and to place themselves under the knife for
circumcision put a dent in the evangelism effort.)

Here is my quandary: given that there seems to
have been at least two diametrically opposed ways of viewing
Jesus and his divinity from the very beginning, and given that
our theology apparently goes back not to Jesus but to Paul (since
he "won" the battle), why are we Christians so arrogant? Doesn't
this argue for a little humility, and even relaxing the "our way
or the highway" mentality that grips the Church? It seems to me
that in the face of yet another example of the humanness of the
words we have received and the process by which they have come to
us, conundrums like the "inerrancy of scripture" need to be
gently laid to rest and we need to be searching for what it means
to be a follower of Jesus in a world that finally must be lived
by faith and awareness of how the spirit is moving in this


The book you refer to was the last book
written by my friend Michael Goulder before he retired as
professor of New Testament at the University of Birmingham in the
United Kingdom. Michael has been more influential than anyone
else in shaping my understanding of the connection between the
synagogue and the first three gospels, Mark, Matthew, and Luke.

There is no doubt that there was conflict from
the very beginning that centered on Peter and Paul. However, I
do not think that it was basically about the divinity of Christ,
as Michael suggests. Both Peter and Paul were Jews. God was
wholly other for both of them. Jesus had revealed God in a
dramatic way, but to suggest that Paul somehow saw him as the
second person of the Trinity is an enormous stretch. Paul
suggests in his most systematic Epistle to the Romans that God
"designated" Jesus as "the Son of God" by the "spirit of
holiness" at the time of the resurrection. In the gospels Peter
is said to be the first one to confess that Jesus is the Christ,
the Son of God, at Caesarea Philippi. Clearly, however, Peter
did not understand the meaning of this affirmation as the gospel
story clearly reveals.

The real battle between Peter and Paul was
over whether the Christ made the journey to God through the
practices of Judaism no longer essential. Paul argued that
people like the Gentiles could come to Christ without coming
through Judaism. Peter argued for the necessity of coming
through Judaism to Christ.

I think it is fair to say that both Peter and
Paul found in Jesus a God presence. That is the consistent
Christian claim. You are the Christ, the messiah, the one in
whom we have glimpsed the presence of the Kingdom of God. God
was in Christ. These were the ways they articulated this
experience. The human words of explanation are always time
bound, time warped, and finite. Human explanations always die.
If the experience is real, however, it will force the formation
of new explanations in every generation. These explanations too
will die in time. Yes, this knowledge does call for humility
before the mystery of God and the recognition that our words can
never capture that mystery.

Idolatry begins when we claim inerrancy for
the human words of the Bible, ultimate truth for the human words
of the creeds, our doctrines, our dogmas, or even the
ex-cathedral utterances of one designated the head of the Church.

God alone is ultimate. Our understandings of
God are never ultimate. That is also true for the explanations
of Peter and Paul.

Shelby Spong




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