The editors of U. S. Catholic magazine explored this issue with the Rev. Joseph Fitzmyer, a Jesuit biblical scholar who is professor emeritus of biblical studies at the Catholic University of America and author of numerous books and articles about the New Testament. He is co-editor of "The New Jerome Biblical Commentary" and a former member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, a board of 20 scholars that advises the Vatican on scriptural matters.
Q. What was Paul trying to tell us?
A. Paul depicts for us the effects of the Christ-event-what Jesus did for humanity.
Imagine that the effects of the Christ-event are described as a 10-sided solid figure, and when Paul looks at it from one angle, he says Christ justified us. When he looks at it from another angle, he says Christ saved us. Another angle, Christ reconciled us, and so on. I can count 10 of them in Paul's way of formulating it: justification, salvation, reconciliation, expiation, redemption, freedom, sanctification, transformation, new creation, and glorification.
Each angle comes out of either Paul's Jewish or his Hellenistic background. Justification, for example, is in the Old Testament: the idea that the Jewish people would be able to achieve the status of righteousness or uprightness in the sight of God, to stand before God as justified.
It's a judicial concept, something that pertains to the law court. In today's litigious society, it should be quite obvious to us what it means for somebody who's summoned to court, stands before a judge, and hears the verdict-either guilty or not guilty. That's the image that Paul uses: He says that Christ Jesus justified us-he brought it about that we stand before God the judge, and we hear the verdict of acquittal.
Q. What's the core of Paul's theology?
The story of the cross puts Christ Himself at the center of God's new mode of salvation, and all else in Paul's teaching has to be oriented to his Christ-centered understanding of salvation. What influence does God have on human beings that brings about their salvation? And how does God do it? God does it through Christ Jesus.
Q. Paul's letters were written earlier than the gospels. What is the significance of that?
A. Paul gave us an interpretation of Christ even before the early Christian church wrote down the story of Christ. The letters that most scholars agree were written by Paul himself-1 Thessalonians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Romans, and Philemon-were all written between 51 and 58 A.D., whereas the earliest gospel we have, Mark, might be written as early as 65. The earliest "picture," then, we have of Jesus of Nazareth comes to us from Paul. That's the reason Paul is the first theologian in the Christian church.
Q. Didn't Paul have a negative view of sex?
A. That's the kind of thing I love to challenge.
In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul writes, "This I say by way of concession, however, not as a command. Indeed, I wish everyone to be as I am, but each has a particular gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. Now to the unmarried and to the widows I say: It is a good thing for them to remain as they are, as I do."
That's one of Paul's famous statements. The usual interpretation of that verse is that he was unmarried, and so what he means is, "Do as I do, but if you cannot exercise self-control, you should marry, for it is better to marry than to be on fire."
Later in the same chapter, he also writes, "I tell you, brothers, the time is running out." Obviously he expected Christ's return. You have to remember that, like Paul, the early Christians expected that somehow or other the Second Coming of Christ would soon be a reality. You can see this expectation in the Nicene Creed that we recite every Sunday.
Q. What would Paul say to the Church today?
A. That's always a temptation to think that problems in the 20th century can somehow be answered by something in the New Testament or in the Bible in general. When we read Paul today, we're reading him through the lens of patristic teaching, medieval theology, and the whole dogmatic tradition of the Church. Paul sometimes gives some indication of what's pertinent, but he never gives you the full answer.
The primary aim of talking about Paul's theology is to give a descriptive presentation of Paul's Christian faith and, above all, determine what Paul meant when he wrote to the Christians whom he immediately addressed. But it also aims at ascertaining what his theology means for Christians today. Paul's meaning for the faith of people today cannot be something totally other than the meaning he intended for his contemporaries.