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In addition to being a significant leader in the early Church, Paul the Apostle is probably one of the most contentious yet interesting historical personalities. Born in Tarsus, a Roman province in Cilicia, Paul had a good understanding of Hebrew Scripture and was, in fact, a fanatical Judaist zealot before to his conversion. Aside from Hebrew Scripture, Paul was clearly well-versed in Greek philosophy, as seen by his writings. Paul's writings indicate agreement with Platonism, particularly on the purposes and qualities of sin. Paul also opines that Christ and his teachings supersede the Law but that human beings nevertheless have an obligation to the law as it is representative of God’s will. These views are fundamental to contemporary politics since they inform and are the basis for government power in many societies.
Paul’s appropriation of concepts from Greek moralist philosophy has a substantive effect on his teachings about salvation and sin. Plato thoughts regarding the soul opine that the psyche comprises of three faculties of which two are non-rational while one is rational. These three faculties; the spirited, reasoning, and appetitive have a balance of power in existence between them that is responsible for virtuous actions with an imbalance leading to vice and immorality. Thus, Plato contends that the soul is locked in a perpetual struggle that determines one’s conduct. When the irrational faculties, which comprise of desires, pleasure, appetites, passions, and spirit dominate, the body engages in immoral actions. Paul appears to borrow heavily from this Platonic philosophy in his description of salvation and sin as narrated in Romans.
In Romans 7, Paul depicts sin as something that dwells inside our bodies where it enslaves, causes war, and kills. For example in Romans 7: 22-23 (NIV), he posits “For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me.” Similarly, in chapter 8:3 Paul contends that Christ has “condemned sin in the flesh” which personifies sin and allows a comparison between sin and the Platonic passions. In the same way that adherents of Plato’s philosophy postulate the existence of a violent conflict between the irrational and rational parts of the soul so too does Paul posit a struggle between the mind and sin in Romans 7 and between the spirit and the flesh in Romans 8.
Plato’s writings depict a large mob of desires and passions that are in service to a nefarious ruler, for example, a jailor or an obsessive sexual urge. This logic is exactly what Paul applies when he likens sin to a form of dominion and locates this rule in the body while claiming that it has an ability to compel obedience to those desires. Hence, in this way, the dying and death to which Paul alludes in Romans 7 may be construed as a metaphor for the control and domination exercised by irrational desires over an individual. In the same way that Platonic philosophy personifies irrational passions as being deceptive, devious, and malevolent beings that overpower the soul and overthrow its natural ruler, reason, so too does Paul perceive sin, which overwhelms the soul and rules where goodness would ordinarily reign. Thus, sin, passions and the body form the irrational parts of the Platonic soul, which oppose reason as well as law.
However, in Romans chapter 8, Paul introduces the spirit of God whose role is to dwell inside the human mind and allow it to restore its abilities to exercise self-control and restore reason. Hence, applying the Platonic philosophy permits the establishment of an association between flesh and sin as posited by Paul in Romans 8. The Platonic philosophy is especially important in the understanding of Paul’s teachings about the things of the flesh. In Romans 8:5-6, Paul posits “Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace.” If Platonic philosophy is applied here, “what the flesh desires” are those bad appetites or desires that stimulate the excessive pursuit of objects like food and sex. Hence, individuals who “have their minds set on what the flesh desires” approve of these objects and are subject to their passions thus inviting God’s hate and condemnation to death. The Spirit, however, is the antithesis of the flesh and is therefore a rational faculty, which if embraced guides one to moral conduct. The Spirit and the flesh are consequently hostile powers residing in the same body and engaged in a constant struggle for dominance the results of which are the basis of individual conduct.
Paul’s discussion and perception of the law is arguably one of the New Testament’s most hotly debated topics. A prevalent belief is that Paul’s conception of the Law undergoes a considerable alteration between his authorship of Romans and Galatians with some contradictions apparently in existence. However, a close interrogation of Paul’s sentiments about the Law in both books shows that his beliefs are actually complementary as opposed to being in contradiction of each other. However, because Paul does not provide a complete discussion of the Law in either of the books, Paul’s views are only understandable through an extrapolation of what he actually says.
The first element of Paul’s discussion of the law relates to the Law and the Covenant made by God with Abraham. God’s promise to Abraham was that the land on which he was an alien at the time would eventually come to belong to him eternally in the form of an inheritance. Consequently, as Paul mentions in Galatians 3, the Jewish inheritance was built on God’s promise as opposed to the Law, which actually came into operation 430 years after the establishment of the Covenant. Thus, the Covenant was premised on faith, and the Law neither set aside nor supplemented it.
Paul, in the book of Galatians 3:10 states that “For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” In this quotation, Paul is implying that it is impossible for one to live in strict adherence to the Law because we are incapable of constant obedience, which makes the Law an unachievable standard. Thus, human redemption can only come through Christ sacrificing himself as a curse for our sake.
Paul posits that the Law leads to slavery, which he explains by stating in Romans 7:15 that “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” Paul posits that this is occasioned by the operation of the Law in his body, which has turned him into a captive of the Law that causes sin. Since the Law is both an unachievable standard and brings about slavery, it may be described as being “the law of sin and death” (Rom 8:2). The Law creates sin by creating an understanding of good and evil but simultaneously demanding a righteousness it is incapable of producing. Hence, because the bar set by the Law is too high for any person, all men are rendered unrighteous and thus deserving of God’s condemnation. Therefore sin, which uses flesh as a medium of operation, commandeers the Law and uses it to bring about death.
In Galatians 2:19 (NIV), Paul posits that “For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God” In this verse, Paul is pointing out that the Law has rendered him a condemned man marked for death. However, in Romans 7:1(NIV), Paul points out that “the law has authority over someone only as long as that person lives.” Hence, having died in Christ, Paul and all other Christians are now freed from the Law through Jesus’ sacrifice. This argument is reiterated in Romans 8:1-2 (NIV) in which Paul states that “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.” In other words, Paul means to say that all those liberated by Christ’s death are now in service to the Spiritual law as opposed to the written code. Thus, Christian righteousness now centers on the observance of Christ’s teachings and submission to faith in Him as opposed to observance of the Law. Christ’s teaching has extended or superseded the instruction of the Law and thus established a new, more wholesome standard by which Christians should live.
However, it should be noted that Paul does not advocate for antinomianism since in Romans 7:12 (NIV), he recognizes the holiness of the law stating “So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good.” Paul simply seeks to clarify the different roles played by the Law and by faith. The purpose of the Law, Paul states in Galatians 3: 24 (NIV) was to serve as “our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith.” However, the law could not provide salvation nor could it lead to righteousness since the only way to achieve this is via faith. Paul makes this distinction very clear in Galatians 2:21 (NIV) stating “I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” Thus, as a guardian, the Law exists to identify and punish sin but cannot save whereas the faith exists to provide us with salvation.
Paul’s writings in Romans and Galatians introduce a variety of concepts that are critical to contemporary politics today. Perhaps the most important of the concepts presented by Paul is the role of the law and the political responsibility of Christians. In Romans 13:1 Paul writes “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.” Paul, in this statement, exhorts Christians to be obedient to the current administration since disobedience to elected rulers amounts to an infringement of God’s laws. In Galatians, Paul posits that the law serves as a guideline and disciplinarian. Since power is wielded by the state, which is the custodian of the law, it then follows that the governing authorities are by default the disciplinarians. In contemporary politics, anti-government protests and civil disobedience are an increasingly common occurrence with recent examples being the Catalan independence problem in Spain and the Black Lives matter protests in the USA. From the Christian perspective, which is informed by Paul’s writings here, it is important to question whether such initiatives are in keeping with God’s will or whether they amount to a direct contradiction of His teachings.
Paul’s teachings about flesh and sin and their association with Platonic philosophy is a similarly important aspect. In relation to contemporary political issues such as the Catalan independence question, one must ask whether the desire for independence is born out of genuine concerns or is merely a manifestation of the irrational faculties exercising dominance. The application of these concepts to such issues can help to provide answers to the complex questions presented by these contemporary political problems.
The Holy Bible, New International Version. Biblica, 2015.
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