Four Ways We Can Misread Paul

Since we’re in the midst of Paul for several months, I thought I’d share this. It’s a handout I’ve used sometimes about four common ways we misread Paul with modern, Western eyes. (That book is one of the Top 5 I books recommend

1. Inside Baseball

Reports of baseball games (or, if you speak baseball fluently, substitute “jai alai” or “sepak takraw“) don’t explain baseball. They presume a pre-existing understanding of the game. Similarly, Paul’s letters were not written as chapters in a systematic exposition of Gospel basics, like  a doctrinal handbook nor are they missionary documents meant to expound or convert. His letters were not tracts or General Conference talks. Paul is not explaining the Gospel to someone who’s never heard it at all, but presupposes knowledge and acceptance of its; so much goes without being said. Written at different times, with different purposes, and somewhat different styles, Paul sometimes changes his mind or seems to be at odds with himself. His letters are not entirely consistent. They are partial expressions of Paul’s thought.

2. Telephone

Every so often, I hear my wife on the phone, and the content is strange enough that I want to say, “who are you talking to?” With Paul’s letters, we are quite literally listening to half the phone call, half the conversation. We don’t know the context. These are occasional letters, and we don’t know the occasion, except for whatever Paul tells us or we manage to extrapolate from the content. For example, we know Paul had very strong feelings about the sacrament, but only because of what he writes in 1 Corinthians 11, which he writes because the Corinthians were making such a hash of it. Were it not necessary to correct the Corinthians, we would never have known this information.

3. Manner We read chapters and verses silently, breaking it down. Paul’s letters were meant to be read out loud, all at once, and heard by the believers present;

1 Thessalonians 5:27 “I solemnly charge you by the Lord to have this letter read before all the congregation.”

Colossians 4:16 “when this letter has been read among you, have it read also in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you read also the letter from Laodicea.”

Notably, reading and writing were rare skills, and Paul himself could not write very well. Taken at face value, anyway, note  Galatians 6:11, where Paul apparently takes the pen in his own hand to say “Look what large letters I use with my own hand!”

4. Presentism We tend to read Paul in our context, through our view of LDS Church history and doctrine. There are two competing principles here: the Restoration principle (i.e. Paul and his audiences knew and understand as we do today) vs. Line Upon Line principle (we know and understand more, about the Gospel because more has been revealed to or clarified for us today than in Paul’s day.)

I tend to think we should interpret more through the Line upon Line principle, but it varies based on topic and passage. Regardless, there is context that is very different from our day. So much of Paul’s letters is devoted to reconciling and explaining the issues of Jew vs Pagan, Jesus vs. Torah, and I can’t recall the last time our Elders Quorum got embroiled over circumcision. On the other hand, the issue of factionalism (though the dividing line changes) is certainly a live one today.

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One thought on “Four Ways We Can Misread Paul

  1. This is very good. In Gospel Doctrine class, I pointed out similar info. I asked “we know from 1 Cor. that Paul was originally in Corinth for 1 1/2 years establishing the Church there. What writings do we have from Paul concerning the basic teachings he gave them during this period? Zero. What about the basic teachings he gave to the other Asian and Greek churches that he established? Zero. This is why it is such an impossibility for protestant churches, try as they may to stay “bible-only”, to use Paul’s letters to form the framework of their foundational church structure and all of the doctrine. We simply don’t have Paul’s (i.e. Jesus’s) “manual” on church-building in the New Testament.

    Let’s look at a basketball team. A coach works with a team day after day laying the foundation of what he hopes will be a successful season. After a great deal of effort in teaching the basic principles of basketball and teamwork, they go out on their own on the court and immediately start making mistakes and forgetting stuff. So, at halftime, the coach gathers the team in the locker room and gives his speech…

    This is what we call Real-Time Course Correction. And that is what Paul’s letters are. Chloe informs Paul that the Saints in Corinth are struggling on the court, and Paul delivers his speech (in letter form). Someone who has not been at the daily basketball practices but who is now listening to the coach in the locker room will be able to follow some – but not all – of what the coach is trying to convey to the team. We, 2,000 years and a few translations later, are at a greater disadvantage in fully understanding what Paul is saying to the Corinthians than the locker room listener is. But the members of the Church at Corinth would understand it (even though 2 Cor. shows that they didn’t necessarily like everything they heard).

    But, Real-Time Course Correction is vitally important to both basketball teams and disciples of Jesus. And this is what living Prophets provide! They can see where members are confused or straying from basic tenets and they can provide importance guidance. Modern prophets do this all the time. As recently as last month, modern-day prophets – noting the confusion within today’s latte, mocha, vaping world – presented valuable understanding to youth and others as to what constitutes today’s “Word of Wisdom”.


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