PAUL AND TRADITION, Sixth in a series
By Rev. Donald Senior C.P.
PAUL AND TRADITION
Paul's impact on Christianity has been so monumental that some have considered him its "second founder." There is no doubt that Paul's writings have had a profound influence, yet he also stood in the stream of developing Christian tradition and was thoroughly dependent upon it. When Paul's authority was under assault by his opponents, he would stress his credentials as an apostle of Jesus and one who himself had had a vision of the Risen Christ. This is clearly the case in the opening words of his impassioned letter to the Galatians: "Paul, an apostle not from human beings nor through a human being but through Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised him from the dead" (Galatians 1:1). Later in that same letter, he asserts: "Now I want you to know, brethren, that the gospel preached by me is not of human origin. For I did not receive it from a human being, nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ" (Galatians 1:11-12).
While Paul rightly claims that the gospel ultimately comes from Jesus Christ, it is also true that Paul was formed and instructed by the Christian community of which he was a part. There are several explicit places where Paul himself acknowledges his debt to Christian tradition. In 1 Corinthians 15 where Paul discusses the resurrection, he invokes what was probably a creedal or catechetical formula used in the early Church: "For I handed on to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures; that he was buried; that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures" (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). After this Paul lists the various appearances of the Risen Christ to the various apostles and witnesses, with Paul himself in last place.
Another important example is where Paul communicates to the Corinthians the tradition about Jesus' words at the Last Supper, the very origin of the Eucharist now celebrated in the Corinthian community: "For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread..." (1 Corinthians 11:23). Although Paul says he received this "from the Lord," he quotes words that are very close to the words of institution found in the gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, ones that no doubt were handed on within the Christian community.
Paul also seems to draw on early Christian hymns that praise the Risen Christ in exalted terms. One example is the beautiful hymn to Christ in Philippians: "Have among you the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus, Who though he was in the form of God did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather he emptied himself taking the form of a slave" (Philippians 2:5-7). This poetic piece ends with the soaring words: "(let) every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father" (Philippians 2:11). Paul cites the hymn as part of his exhortation to the Philippians that they should be gracious and forgiving with one other.
No doubt Paul himself would have recited these creeds and sung these hymns shoulder to shoulder with other fellow Christians. Paul was a great apostle and teacher but he himself also was formed and instructed by the community of faith.
Ways to Implement
At HomeDiscussion Point: All of us depend on others for our life of faith. As Christians we cannot be "Lone Rangers." God's grace comes to us through the faith and love of others--our families, our friends, our parish, the great tradition and worship of the Church itself. How has the community strengthened your faith? How have you supported the faith of others?