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§ 88. The Epistles of Paul

Παῦλος γενόμενο· μέγιστος· ὑπογραμμός. (Clement of Rome.)

Comp. §§ 29–36 and 71.

General Character.

Paul was the greatest worker among the apostles, not only as a missionary, but also as a writer. He "labored more than all." And we may well include in this "all" the whole body of theologians who came after him; for where shall we find an equal wealth of the profoundest thoughts on the highest themes as in Paul? We have from him thirteen Epistles; how many more were lost, we cannot even conjecture. The four most important of them are admitted to be genuine even by the most exacting and sceptical critics. They are so stamped with the individuality of Paul, and so replete with tokens of his age and surroundings, that no sane man can mistake the authorship. We might as well doubt the genuineness of Luther’s work on the Babylonian captivity, or his Small catechism. The heretic Marcion, in the first half of the second century, accepted ten, excluding only the three Pastoral Epistles which did not suit his notions.

The Pauline Epistles are pastoral addresses to congregations of his own founding (except that of Rome, and probably also that of Colossae, which were founded by his pupils), or to individuals (Timothy, Titus, Philemon). Several of them hail from prison, but breathe the same spirit of faith, hope, and joy as the others, and the last ends with a shout of victory. They proceeded from profound agitation, and yet are calm and serene. They were occasioned by the trials, dangers, and errors incident to every new congregation, and the care and anxiety of the apostle for their spiritual welfare. He had led them from the darkness of heathen idolatry and Jewish bigotry to the light of Christian truth and freedom, and raised them from the slime of depravity to the pure height of saving grace and holy living. He had no family ties, and threw the whole strength of his affections into his converts, whom he loved as tenderly as a mother can love her offspring.11311131    As he writes himself to the Thessalonians (1 Thess. 2:7): "We were gentle in the midst of you, as when a nurse cherisheth her own children." And to the ungrateful and unsteady Galatians 4:9 he writes: "My little children, of whom I am again in travail until Christ be formed in you." This love to his spiritual children was inspired by his love to Christ, as his love to Christ was the response to Christ’s love for him. Nor was his love confined to the brethren: he was ready to make the greatest sacrifice for his unbelieving and persecuting fellow-Jews, as Christ himself sacrificed his life for his enemies.

His Epistles touch on every important truth and duty of the Christian religion, and illuminate them from the heights of knowledge and experience, without pretending to exhaust them. They furnish the best material for a system of dogmatics and ethics. Paul looks back to the remotest beginning before the creation, and looks out into the farthest future beyond death and the resurrection. He writes with the authority of a commissioned apostle and inspired teacher, yet, on questions of expediency, he distinguishes between the command of the Lord and his private judgment. He seems to have written rapidly and under great pressure, without correcting his first draft. If we find, with Peter, in his letters, "some things hard to be understood," even in this nineteenth century, we must remember that Paul himself bowed in reverence before the boundless ocean of God’s truth, and humbly professed to know only in part, and to see through a mirror darkly. All knowledge in this world "ends in mystery."11321132    "Das ist das Ende der Philosophie: zu wissen, dass wir glauben müssen." -(Geibel.) Our best systems of theology are but dim reflections of the sunlight of revelation. Infinite truths transcend our finite minds, and cannot be compressed into the pigeon-holes of logical formulas. But every good commentary adds to the understanding and strengthens the estimate of the paramount value of these Epistles.

The Chronological Order.

Paul’s Epistles were written within a period of about twelve years, between a.d. 52 or 53 and 64 or 67, when he stood at the height of his power and influence. None was composed before the Council of Jerusalem. From the date of his conversion to his second missionary journey (a.d. 37 to 52) we have no documents of his pen. The chronology of his letters can be better ascertained than that of the Gospels or Catholic Epistles, by combining internal indications with the Acts and contemporary events, such as the dates of the proconsulship of Gallio in Achaia, and the procuratorship of Felix and Festus in Judaea. As to the Romans, we can determine the place, the year, and the season of composition: he sends greetings from persons in Corinth (Rom. 16:23), commends Phoebe, a deaconess of Kenchreae, the port of Corinth, and the bearer of the letter (16:1); he had not yet been in Rome (1:13), but hoped to get there after another visit to Jerusalem, on which he was about to enter, with collections from Macedonia and Achaia for the poor brethren in Judaea (15:22–29; comp. 2 Cor. 8:1–3); and from Acts we learn that on his last visit to Achaia he abode three months in Corinth, and returned to Syria between the Passover and Pentecost (Acts 20:3, 6, 16). This was his fifth and last journey to Jerusalem, where he was taken prisoner and sent to Felix in Caesarea, two years before he was followed by Festus. All these indications lead us to the spring of a.d. 58.

The chronological order is this: Thessalonians were written first, a.d. 52 or 53; then Galatians, Corinthians, and Romans, between 56 and 58; then the Epistles of the captivity: Colossians, Ephesians, Philemon, Philippians, between 61 and 63; last, the Pastoral Epistles, but their date is uncertain, except that the second Epistle to Timothy is his farewell letter on the eve of his martyrdom.

It is instructive to study the Epistles in their chronological order with the aid of the Acts, and so to accompany the apostle in his missionary career from Damascus to Rome, and to trace the growth of his doctrinal system from the documentary truths in Thessalonians to the height of maturity in Romans; then through the ramifications of particular topics in Colossians, Ephesians, Philippians, and the farewell counsels in the Pastoral Epistles.

Doctrinal Arrangement.

More important than the chronological order is the topical order, according to the prevailing object and central idea. This gives us the following groups:

1. Anthropological and Soteriological: Galatians and Romans.

2. Ethical and Ecclesiastical: First and Second Corinthians.

3. Christological: Colossians and Philippians.

4. Ecclesiological: Ephesians (in part also Corinthians).

5. Eschatological: Thessalonians.

6. Pastoral: Timothy and Titus.

7. Social and Personal: Philemon.

The Style.

"The style is the man." This applies with peculiar force to Paul. His style has been called "the most personal that ever existed."11331133    By Renan, who, notwithstanding his fastidious French taste and antipathy to Paul’s theology, cannot help admiring his lofty genius. It fitly represents the force and fire of his mind and the tender affections of his heart. He disclaims classical elegance and calls himself "rude in speech," though by no means "in knowledge." He carried the heavenly treasure in earthen vessels. But the defects are more than made up by excellences. In his very weakness the Strength of Christ was perfected. We are not lost in the admiration of the mere form, but are kept mindful of the paramount importance of the contents and the hidden depths of truth which he behind the words and defy the power of expression.

Paul’s style is manly, bold, heroic, aggressive, and warlike; yet at times tender, delicate, gentle, and winning. It is involved, irregular, and rugged, but always forcible and expressive, and not seldom rises to more than poetic beauty, as in the triumphant paean at the end of the eighth chapter of Romans, and in the ode on love (1 Cor. 13). His intense earnestness and overflowing fulness of ideas break through the ordinary rules of grammar. His logic is set on fire. He abounds in skilful arguments, bold antitheses, impetuous assaults, abrupt transitions, sudden turns, zigzag flashes, startling questions and exclamations. He is dialectical and argumentative; he likes logical particles, paradoxical phrases, and plays on words. He reasons from Scripture, from premises, from conclusions; he drives the opponent to the wall without mercy and reduces him ad absurdum, but without ever indulging in personalities. He is familiar with the sharp weapons of ridicule, irony, and sarcasm, but holds them in check and uses them rarely. He varies the argument by touching appeals to the heart and bursts of seraphic eloquence. He is never dry or dull, and never wastes words; he is brief, terse, and hits the nail on the head. His terseness makes him at times obscure, as is the case with the somewhat similar style of Thucydides, Tacitus, and Tertullian. His words are as many warriors marching on to victory and peace; they are like a mountain torrent rushing in foaming rapids over precipices, and then calmly flowing over green meadows, or like a thunderstorm ending in a refreshing shower and bright sunshine.

Paul created the vocabulary of scientific theology and put a profounder meaning into religious and moral terms than they ever had before. We cannot speak of sin, flesh, grace, mercy, peace, redemption, atonement, justification, glorification, church, faith, love, without bearing testimony to the ineffaceable effect which that greatest of Jewish rabbis and Christian teachers has had upon the language of Christendom.


Chrysostom justly compares the Epistles of Paul to metals more precious than gold and to unfailing fountains which flow the more abundantly the more we drink of them.

Beza: "When I more closely consider the whole genius and character of Paul’s style, I must confess that I have found no such sublimity of speaking in Plato himself ... no exquisiteness of vehemence in Demosthenes equal to his."

Ewald begins his Commentary on the Pauline Epistles (Göttingen, 1857) with these striking and truthful remarks: "Considering these Epistles for themselves only, and apart from the general significance of the great Apostle of the Gentiles, we must still admit that, in the whole history of all centuries and of all nations, there is no other set of writings of similar extent, which, as creations of the fugitive moment, have proceeded from such severe troubles of the age, and such profound pains and sufferings of the author himself, and yet contain such an amount of healthfulness, serenity, and vigor of immortal genius, and touch with such clearness and certainty on the very highest truths of human aspiration and action .... The smallest as well as the greatest of these Epistles seem to have proceeded from the fleeting moments of this earthly life only to enchain all eternity they were born of anxiety and bitterness of human strife, to set forth in brighter lustre and with higher certainty their superhuman grace and beauty. The divine assurance and firmness of the old prophets of Israel, the all-transcending glory and immediate spiritual presence of the Eternal King and Lord, who had just ascended to heaven, and all the art and culture of a ripe and wonderfully excited age, seem to have joined, as it were, in bringing forth the new creation of these Epistles of the times which were destined to last for all times."

On the style of Paul, see my Companion, etc., pp. 62 sqq. To the testimonies there given I add the judgment of Reuss (Geschichte der h. Schr. N. T., I. 67): "Still more [than the method] is the style of these Epistles the true expression of the personality of the author. The defect of classical correctness and rhetorical finish is more than compensated by the riches of language and the fulness of expression. The condensation of construction demands not reading simply, but studying. Broken sentences, ellipses, parentheses, leaps in the argumentation, allegories, rhetorical figures express inimitably all the moods of a wide-awake and cultured mind, all the affections of a rich and deep heart, and betray everywhere a pen at once bold, and yet too slow for the thought. Antitheses, climaxes, exclamations, questions keep up the attention, and touching effusions win the heart of the reader."

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