Peter vs. Paul?

Today is the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul. As someone who’s early Episcopal life was formed at The Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, this particular feast day has been very dear to me over the years. If I had to choose a patronal feast day for the doctrine of Reconciliation, this would be it.

But I want to be careful about what I think the feast day represents. The National Cathedral was given its name in an era when there was a common belief that St. Peter and St. Paul represented a time of great conflict in the early Church. St. Peter reflected, it was believed, the desire for the Church to remain holy and separate from the World as a means to gain salvation. St. Paul represented a refutation of that idea and insisted that it was Grace along by which we were saved. Back in that day, especially in the Episcopal Church at the height of the battles between the High and Low Church parties, I imagine that people would chose their champion between the two saints and argue from that warrant that their party was correct. Outside the Episcopal Church there were similar arguments made that reflected main-stream American anti-catholicism (which was mostly anti-immigrant) at the time. The decision to name the Nation’s Cathedral after these two warring saints carried an implicit message of reconciliation to church and to the world. “Let those who have ears to hear, hear.”

But like so many things, we probably overstate the conflict. We overstated it a century ago, the polemicists overstated it in the Reformation, and we overstate it today. The issue today is that because most of the so-called clobber passages used by now by separatists and works-righteousness Christians are found in the Pauline books of the New Testament, there’s been in the latter part of the last century a tendency to dismiss Paul as having made up a religion that pollutes the pure teaching of Jesus.

The argument goes something like this. Jesus taught a very simple way of living. We just needed to love one another. (Or he was a great and failed apocalyptic prophet. Or he was a rabbi. Or he was Hindu philosopher. Or a Cynic. Or something – it probably depends who’s looking for what sort of warrant for their personal views). Paul came along and turned the simple and pure teachings of Jesus into a giant mess by trying to graft his own agenda onto them. Today’s Church, it is thus argued, isn’t really one of the followers of Christ. It’s one of people who follow St. Paul.

The idea tends to go a step further, at least within church circles, to say that if we seek to find a corrective to Paul, we must look to St. Peter. After all, he was the real leader of the disciples. Paul was self-appointed, late comer and never heard the words of Jesus directly…

There’s any number of problems with these ideas. First, the idea that Paul founded a religion that dismisses the real teachings of Jesus, has to explain away why the earliest writings that the Church preserved were those of Paul. The other problem is that such a view presumes that the Gospels preserve the full teaching of the early Church. And any conflict between Paul and the Gospel sayings of Jesus need to be resolved in a way that favors the Gospels. (Which violates most of the methodology of literary archeology which favors the early over the later text.) There’s a great wisdom in the old reformation idea that we must first try to use the biblical texts to understand biblical texts. Anything else has the danger of falling into eisegesis.

So, assuming we can rescue Paul from the anti-Paulinists, can we rescue Paul from Peterites? Unlike the “conflict” between Paul and Jesus, the conflict between Peter and Paul actually has biblical warrant – at least from Paul’s side. Paul complains about his dealings with Cephas (Peter) in Galatians and First Corinthians, and talks about rebuking Peter. It’s the passages about rebuke that have been seized upon by the Protestant and Greek Orthodox critics of the Roman Catholic pontiff to argue that the claims of Petrine superiority are overstated. The Roman Catholic response is worth hearing in this case. They argue that there is no early tradition of a lasting feud between Peter and Paul – they point to the joint martyrdom in Rome as proof of reconciliation between the two leaders. They also quote from Acts and others that Paul claims the support of Peter and James for what he is preaching implying that their warrant is at least as important as the self-claimed warrant of Paul.

Frankly much of the imagined conflict between Peter and Paul, between Law and Grace, between Jew and Greek, is dealt with and dismissed I believe in the work of theologians like N.T. Wright and James Dunn among others in their writing on what is now called the NPP (the New Perspective on Paul). The basic idea is simple. We must not read Paul through the lenses of our own conflicts. We must read Paul as a person who writes as and to the Jewish community near the end of the Temple era. And when that happens, much of what we see as conflict begins to vanish and becomes internal conversation between people actively working to reconcile their ideas to each other’s.

“Actively reconciling their ideas to each other’s”; I like that. I like that a lot. It presumes that all parties have something of value to contribute to the conversation, and it presumes that the comprehension, not, mind you in bold letters, the synthesis in a Hegelian sort of way, is a thing better than the conflict.

Do remember the collect for the Feast of Richard Hooker? “Grant that we may maintain that middle way,
not as a compromise for the sake of peace, but as a comprehension for the sake of truth”. That’s what I tend to hear in the intentional inclusion of conflicted writings in the canon of the New Testament; reconciliation, not echoes of an ongoing war.

Maybe it’s worth meditating on the symbolic message that is expressed in the proper name of our National Cathedral. (Which is also, as much as anything, the home church of the Episcopal Church.) At our best, we live into that name.

Author: Nicholas Knisely

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...