St Paul: the Apostle We Love To Hate

Karen Armstrong, Amazon Publishing, 2015, reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

        Armstrong’s book is not a theology of Pauline thought but a biographical treatment of key events in his life that affected his theology and related to the historical issues of his social experiences. Eg, what were the major issues in Antioch? In Corinth (especially)?

        Armstrong’s attention to the biographical details of Paul’s work helps us to see better what personal issues focused on matters of faith. It is a sketch of early church life. Paul was a diasporan Jew; of the 13 letters attributed to Paul in the New Testament, seven are usually seen as authentically Pauline, while the remaining six tried to reduce Paul’s radical teachings to make them more acceptable to the Greco-Roman world.

        These later writers insisted on women’s subservience to men, on slaves being obedient to masters, and spiritualized Pal’s concept of the power and principalities (p 13). But Paul’s radical stance remains on some issues that are relevant today. One, he was an opponent of the structural injustice of the Roman Empire. Two, he tried to transcend barriers of ethnicity, class and gender (pp 13,14). I found Armstrong’s chapter dealing with the Corinthian opposition particularly helpful in understanding what early ecclesial life was like.

        Paul’s passionate identification with the poor is unheeded by those Christians who preach the Prosperity Gospel. His determination to eradicate the ethnic and cultural prejudices that divide us from one another, his rejection of boasting based on a spurious sense of privilege. We would do well to heed Paul’s warning to the ‘strong’ who intimidate the weak with their overbearing certainty (cf Kaveny’s Prophecy Without Contempt).

Vern Ratzlaff is a pastor and professor of historical theology at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.