A man for all civilizations
I’m looking forward to the first episode of Civilizations, which is being aired at nine o’clock on BBC2 tonight. I missed Kenneth Clarke’s 1969 landmark series Civilization because mum and dad had no interest in the and they owned the telly…
I'm determined, therefore, to watch the reworked and expanded version.
But what excites me more is the launch today of Paul: A Biography, an online course by being launched today NT Wright. Although I find myself at issue with some of Wright’s views, unlike many of my Reformed friends, I’m not a member of the ‘Wright is Wrong’ brigade. N T Wright is a great scholar. Like C S Lewis, even when I find myself in disagreement with Wright, I still find him stimulating.
I once attended a lecture in Cambridge at which Wright held an audience spellbound for almost ninety minutes with a stirring defence of the Resurrection. Talking to a group of intelligent youngsters in Pizza Hut afterwards, I discovered that although none of them believed Jesus rose from the dead, none of them could fault Wright’s logic.
Paul, as well as being thoroughly Jewish, was also one of the great minds – possibly the greatest mind – of the ancient Greek and Roman world. Both a Jew and a Roman, Paul straddled three civilizations and understood each thoroughly. His multicultural background prepared him for his ministry as the apostle to the Gentiles, while also equipping him to take the gospel to the Jew first.
Paul was indeed a colossus and much Reformed preaching focuses on his epistles because his letters consist of propositional truth. The early Church fathers read the Old and New Testaments through the prism of Greek philosophical thought, notably Plato, while Thomas Aquinas was a master of Aristotle. The heirs of the fathers tend to be more comfortable with the epistles of Paul they consist largely of propositional truth rather than narrative, wisdom literature and poetry. It’s certainly easier to preach on Romans than Ezekiel, on Ephesians rather than Hosea, or on Philippians than Song of Songs. So much so that I sometimes think some preachers would be happy if the Bible began with Romans 1:1 and ended with 8:39.
My own introduction to Paul proved a salutary reminder to me of how great Paul was. I’d been a Christian for a few months and had begun reading Acts in the newly published Living Bible version. I was captivated by the great apostle until I came to Acts 23, in which Paul is on trial in Jerusalem. When he begins his defence by stating that he has lived his life before God with a good conscience, the high priest orders him to be struck on the mouth. Paul responds angrily in The Living Bible: ‘God will slap you, you white-washed pig pen! What kind of judge are you to break the law yourself by ordering me struck like that?’
Paul immediately apologises for speaking ill of a ruler of the people but I was shocked. I realised that I had been so gripped by the power of Paul that I had inadvertently begun to confusing him with Jesus!
A friend once left a church which was widely renowned for its great preaching. He left because the pastor preached on nothing but the epistles of Paul. My friend is neither a pedantic, nor is he a ‘super-spiritual’ type but, he objected because he felt that Paul, not Jesus, had subtly become the focus of the preaching. ‘The Lord Jesus Christ is our Saviour; not the apostle Paul!’ he told the pastor.
Paul was a spiritual and intellectual giant, in whom I stand in awe. I’m therefore considering whether to enrol in the course in order to better understand Paul, his background and writings. However, I’ve never forgotten my encounter with Acts 23 almost half a century ago so I’m determined never to allow myself to say, ‘I am of Paul,’ of anyone but Jesus.
Will Civilizations deal with Paul? Will the presenters acknowledge the intuence of Jesus on history? I'm not holding my breath, but if the immeasurable contribution of Jesus and Paul to the world is omitted, it will reveal yet again the Beeb's humanistic agenda.