Paul of Tarsus: Christianity’s First Liberation Theologian

 (This is the 2nd in a series on liberation theology)

                It is very difficult for 21st century Christians to understand Paul of Tarsus. This is because (as Evangelical theologian, Brian McLaren puts it) we read Paul backwards – just as we understand Jesus backwards. By that McLaren means we usually begin our understanding with someone like Billy Graham (or with Benedict XVI for Catholics). From there we progress to John Calvin (or Vatican II), to Martin Luther (or the Council of Trent), to Thomas Aquinas, to Augustine, to Paul and then to Jesus. That progression yields a perception of Paul who was misogynist and homophobic, who supported slavery, who taught obedience to all governmental authority, and who was concerned the priority of faith over works the way Luther was. In other words, understanding Paul backwards projects back onto him controversies and consciousness that emerged decades, centuries and even millennia after his death.

                There is another way to understand Paul (and Jesus) however. And that is the way employed by liberation theology. This “other” way begins understanding with Adam, progresses on to Abraham, Moses, David, the Prophets, John the Baptist, Jesus, and finally Paul. This Paul is interpreted in the light of Jesus and not vice-versa. He knows nothing of the controversies that will distort his message over the centuries to come. Instead, we find in the man from Tarsus a follower of Jesus of Nazareth. Paul is above all Jewish, and a working man besides. Paul is an intellectual, world-traveler, Jewish mystic, radical thinker, and martyr at the hands of empire. His overriding concern is spreading Good News about Jesus and his message which centralized the welfare of the poor and oppressed.

As everyone knows, Paul’s letters represent the earliest entries we find in the Christian Testament. Written beginning around the year 50, they pre-date the gospels by 20 years or more. They are the documents closest in time to the life of Jesus of Nazareth. This makes it very significant that Paul’s letters (especially Romans and I Corinthians) reflect a clear liberation theology perspective whose defining character is a preferential option for the poor.

To perceive this reflection, it is helpful to consider Paul’s life’s circumstances in relation to Jesus. Such consideration reveals both continuities and discontinuities. To begin with, like Jesus, Paul belonged to the working class. He was a tent-maker. He was also, like Jesus, a Jewish mystic. This means he was aware that divine revelation did not belong to a single people, but was available to everyone by virtue of a common human experience.  Even more, Paul recognized a Divine Spark, i.e. a divine presence within every human being. He called it the Spirit of God. Both recognitions (of the commonality of revelation and of the Divine Spark) made Paul a universalist who saw that in God’s order national and class distinctions were meaningless. Finally, Paul, like Jesus, finished as a victim of capital punishment at the hands of the Roman Empire, though he was not executed by crucifixion, which suggests that unlike Jesus, he was not considered an insurgent or terrorist.

In addition to the similarities, Paul’s life circumstances also made him unlike Jesus in several important ways. For one, Paul was formally schooled as a Jewish rabbi, so he had more formal education than Jesus; Paul was an intellectual. Unlike Jesus too, Paul was a world traveler, and may even have been a Roman citizen. This not only helps account for Paul’s daring universalism, but for his opportunities and willingness to engage Roman philosophers on their own turf – geographically and intellectually.

Such considerations shed a bright light on Paul’s theology. There in key arguments he did not typically begin from a place of divine revelation, but from experience from which he drew rational conclusions. This made him like the Greco-Roman philosophers he was so interested in engaging.  Like the Stoics among them, he recognized the earlier referenced Divine Spark within each person. Paul, however, differed from the Stoics (and the Christian Gnostics who came later) in that he did not interpret the Divine Spark or logos as the presence of a changeless Spirit continuous with an eternal natural order. Nor did recognition of a divine indwelling spirit confirm the Stoic view that saw Rome’s political order as divinely established with the Emperor embodying the fullest expression of the divine “Word.”  

Rather, for Paul, the divine spark was identical with the Spirit of God, which Paul saw the same as what he termed the wisdom of God. That wisdom selected the poor and despised as God’s chosen people. This selection made Paul’s critical truth criterion vastly different from his Greco-Roman debate adversaries. For whereas the Greek’s criterion of truth was “what is” – the given natural and political orders – Paul’s fundamental criterion of “the judgment of God,” and “the Wisdom of God” prioritized the needs of the poor, humiliated, rejected, and despised. As liberation theologian, Franz Hinkelammert puts it, Paul’s argumentation was structured not by what is, but by what is not, i.e. by those “the wisdom of the world” excludes from consideration, viz. the poor just referenced. Seeing them as God’s chosen calls entirely into question discourse that the given world takes as normal.

To reiterate, all of this is difficult to perceive, since the liberation theology thrust of Paul’s thinking has been obscured by post-fourth century imperialized interpretations to be described in a later posting. (This also happened with the gospel accounts of the words and deeds of Jesus.) Thus on the one hand, Paul is commonly understood as pro-imperial, anti-feminist, and pro-slavery – as though the heart of Paul’s teaching were cultural rather than focusing on the counter-cultural “Wisdom of God.” Emphasis on Paul’s apparent sexism and his pragmatic approach to slavery ignores the apostle’s specific and substantive teachings about the invalidity of distinctions regarding nationality, gender, and social status. Interpretations of Romans 13 as endorsement of empire similarly ignore the center of his teaching about law and his contrast of the wisdom of the world vs. the Wisdom of God. If all authority comes from God as Romans 13 claims, then only those authorities whose legislation expresses the Wisdom of God (and its preferential option for the poor) must be obeyed.  

What Paul’s radicality means is that far from being the real founder of the Christian church (as is often alleged) Paul professed a theology that was quite foreign to his successors. In fact, it might be more accurate to say that the church was not founded by Paul, but against him. His teachings were far too radical for the digestive tracts of church leaders in the Constantinian institution that emerged in the 4th century. At that point, it became necessary to domesticate and tame Paul’s radicality and to make him like the rest of the church, a faithful servant of the status quo with its imperial oppression, misogyny, homophobia, racism, and eventual internecine squabbles about faith and works.

Until the emergence of modern scripture scholarship and interpretations like liberation theology’s we hadn’t heard from the real Paul of Tarsus since the first century.

Next Friday:  Jesus, Paul, Liberation Theology and Critical Thinking

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 40 years. Three grown children. Four grandchildren.

4 thoughts on “Paul of Tarsus: Christianity’s First Liberation Theologian”

    1. Thanks, Laura. The posting on Paul (like so many others) needs a lot of elaboration. It’s based on Franz’s “La maldicin que pesa sobre la ley: Las races del pensamiento crtico en Pablo de Tarso.” San Jos, Costa Rica: Editorial Arlekin, 2010. It’s wonderful. — Mike

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  1. This is a great article – as was your last. So much Western criticism of LT has been spun to incriminate a genuine grass roots spiritual movement as Marxist revolutionary ideology – which is only a small part of it. Thank you for articulating the roots of the movement in scripture.

    I am hoping that as you progress, you explore in detail Cardinal Ratzinger’s particular “anathema” regarding LT and the political beliefs he espouses that may be an underlying factor in his condemnation of the movement.

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    1. Thanks, Jason. You are absolutely correct about tarring LT with the brush of Marxism, and about Ratzinger’s distaste for the movement. In a couple of weeks I will be writing about the Vatican’s vendetta against LT, but I won’t be supplying the detailed analysis Ratzinger’s 1984 letter deserves.

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