The Moral Teachings of Paul: Sacred Cow, White Elephant

Last night I started reading a book by Victor Paul Furnish called The Moral Teaching of Paul: Selected Issues. As I got through the first chapter I enjoyed it more and more. The first chapter serves as a sort of introduction before diving into the selected issues with which Furnish will deal in the following chapters. This first chapter is a brief explanation about how we should interpret Paul's epistles and two ways by which we should not interpret Paul's epistles.

The first big no no in reading Paul is what Furnish calls the "Sacred Cow" approach in which the text comes with a warning attached: "do not touch." In this view Paul's writings are viewed as timeless truths always to be read at their face value as though they were written directly to us, the modern readers. We are not to nuance or tamper with Paul's writings or seek to involve new understanding, rather we are to conform all our understandings to what Paul says. What Paul says goes even if what he said was never meant to be said to us. Furnish suggests that the more specific and timely the situation was with which Paul was dealing, the less specific and less timeless his teachings become. We must first understand how the author intended his message to be understood by the particular audience to which he writes, then and only then can we start to understand what it means for us. This means that we should wrestle with Paul's teaching, however respectfully, and come to a conclusion which takes into account not only what Paul said about the particular issue with which he is dealing but also taking into account all that we know about the issue and all the nuances of it which exist in our culture that did not exist in Paul's.

The second big no no is what Furnish refers to as the "white elephant" approach. A "White Elephant" is a burden, something that may have been useful before but now we drag it around without use or need of it. Furnish warns us away from interpreting Paul's ethical teachings as detached and tangential to his major theological/eschatological message. Some have seen Paul's ethical teachings first of all as more belonging to tradition than to Paul himself and secondly as "precluding" Paul's eschatological message. The ethical teachings are given tangentially and despite his belief that the eschaton was immanent within his lifetime. Paul believed that the return of Jesus, the parusia, was to occur before he breathed his last and so the ethical teachings he gave were given to that specific situation and thus are rendered meaningless to a generation no longer bearing such eschatological expectation. For Furnish Paul's moral teachings are hardly tangential but they give flesh to his overall message: "faith enacted in love." For Furnish Paul's moral teachings are examples of faith enacted in love and thus are ingeniously and intentionally woven into his letters. Thus Paul's teachings are important toward his overall message and thus are not only "profitable for teaching" (2 Timothy 3:16) but they are important and relevant to us today.

In closing Furnish writes that taking the moral teachings of Paul as a "sacred cow" will eventually render them as a "white elephant." If Paul's teachings are always specific and always only meant to be understood just for what they say then as Paul speaks to specific situations which do not exist in our context and when he deals with issues that are irrelevant to us then they will remain irrelevant, a white elephant, until we can begin to really interpret them and their importance, nuancing them so that they are relevant to us. Also as we see that Paul doesn't resolve our specific problems the sacred cow approach will leave Paul out of the conversation, rendering him useless like a white elephant. Paul never talks about globalization or global capitalism. Paul never talks about the aids pandemic in Africa, child slavery, or abortion. Paul never talks about many of the things we are dealing with today. If we cannot wrestle with Paul, if we cannot frame his moral teachings in a way that speaks into these issues then eventually he will simply be a "white elephant."

I may post some more on this book as I continue reading it. I recommend it to you as a helpful guide to Paul's moral teachings. If you feels that you have some issues with the ethical side of Paul's arguments, this book might help you better appreciate him. If you feel Paul's epistles offer sufficient support against the ordination of women, against divorce in any situation, or against homosexuality this read would offer healthy dialog on those issues and I assume it would challenge you.