Admittedly, I am not the biggest Apostle Paul fan in the world, as I tend to hang out biblically in the Gospels more than the rest of the book. Though Paul's epistles are interesting in a historical sense, I believe Jesus' message and witness as revealed in the Gospels offer more spiritual and religious fruits than Paul's writings. My personal belief is that modern Christianity places too much influence on Paul than Jesus. For example, many Christians believe Paul offers an example of how to apply Jesus' teachings. What these Christians often neglect is that Paul wrote these letters to a specific group of people at a specific time in history-not to the modern Christian. Christians already have a timeless and universal message in Jesus Christ, but they often fail to see this. Instead, these Christians prefer to cling to Paul because he tells them what to think and do.
Despite these beliefs, I was eager to read RW Holmen's A Wretched Man because I wanted to see a unique and different Apostle. If one were to listen to the fundamentalists or evangelicals (or I suppose many mainstream denominations), Paul is this iconic traveling preacher & teacher who is founding new churches in hostile environments and expanding Christianity to both Jew and Gentile.
While Holmen does present Paul in this form, a complex human side of Paul is also offered for consideration. Holmen's Paul is a conflicted gay man trying to reconcile his sexuality with the teachings of the Torah. This conflict is always with him as he also tries to deal with his role as an evangelizer to the Gentiles. This role also causes conflict with the Jewish Christians led by Jesus' brother James, who are also conflicted with being Jewish and trying to figure out Jesus' message and role as Messiah. Holmen captures all of these conflicts and provides the reader with a comprehensive view of how organic and often chaotic life was like for the early Christians.
Aside from Paul's sexuality, which will undoubtedly anger literalist evangelical and fundamentalist Christians, A Wretched Man has another potential controversy: Paul's apparent Lutheran bias.
Paulos gestured with an open palm toward the Gentiles lining one wall of the chamber.
We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners,” he said as he made a similar sweeping motion with his other hand toward the stone-faced Jews lining the opposite wall. “Yet, we know that a person is justified not by the works of the Torah but through the faith in Iesou Christos.” (238-239)
That evening, Paulos read aloud what he had dictated and Timotheos had penned that afternoon:
We know that a person is justified, not by the works of Torah, but through faith in Iesou Christos. And we have come to believe in Christos Iesou, so that we might be justified by faith in Christos and not by doing the works of Torah, because no one will be justified by the works of Torah.
“I don't understand this idea of justification,” said Jason.
Much as he appreciated Jason, Paulos often became exasperated with him during these evening sessions because he didn't understand what seemed so clear to Paulos. “Don't you see? It's not human works; it's God's gracious act of forgiveness, of acceptance, of justifying the unworthy.” (342)
For the final keystone course in my undergraduate program, I wrote a paper on the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, which is an agreement between the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church about justification. Both denominations, fueled by biblical contradictions and rhetoric from the Reformation, came to a common agreement on justification in this document. However, this is not a legally binding agreement and large factions in both denominations continue in their original beliefs: Lutherans believing justification by faith alone and Catholics believing a combination of works and faith is needed for justification.
I bring this up because I find it odd that Holmen chose to mention this specific theological concept more than once. It's not something typically mentioned unless being spoken of by Lutherans. As a former Catholic educated in theology by Lutherans, I find this mention, along with the entire book, very interesting. Of course, my belief that Paul-not Jesus-is what many Christians desire and choose to follow still stands. If anything, this book reinforced that idea simply because of its existence.
Minnesota Reads is a book review blog written by, well, Minnesota readers. It all started back in 2008 because there was no comprehensive Twin Cities Literary Events Calendar. We fixed that. Since nobody wanted to look at a calendar all the time, we added book reviews. If you like to talk about books, you can review with us too! Contact us to learn more.