Paul and the proper place of unity

At the end of a recent posting, I noted that Irenaeus wrote that “the church at Rome was ‘founded and set up by the two most glorious apostles Peter and Paul.’ (Against Heresies, 3.3.2).” It is clear from 1 Corinthians that Peter and Paul crossed paths from time to time, and they did so, among other places, in Rome.

If anyone knew of Peter’s “primacy,” it would be Paul. If anyone knew that Rome was to be the seat of the Petrine primacy going forward, it would be Paul. As Irenaeus said, “The Apostles were clad with power from on high by the coming of the Holy Spirit, THEY WERE FILLED CONCERNING EVERYTHING AND HAD PERFECT KNOWLEDGE.” (Caps for you lovers of Newman’s theory of Development). According to Irenaeus, Paul had “perfect knowledge.”

So if Paul knew of some kind of “Petrine primacy” which later “developed” (and it wasn’t fully developed until the fifth century), it was clearly not important to him. But in 1 Corinthians, Paul makes clear what he thinks about “who’s in charge,” even in the context of talking about Peter:

One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.” … Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere men? What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The man who plants and the man who waters have one purpose, and each will be rewarded according to his own labor. For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building. (from 1 Cor 1, 3)

It is clear from this that “only God, who makes things grow,” is the unifying principle. Paul was nothing, Apollos was nothing. By clear implication, Peter was nothing. Only a servant through whom you came to believe. Contrast this with the model that the Catholic church tries to portray now to uphold its own authority, that Peter and the apostles formed a “college,” with Peter sort of in charge. In the words of “Lumen Gentium”: “which our Saviour, after His Resurrection, commissioned Peter to shepherd, and him and the other apostles to extend and direct with authority, which He erected for all ages as “the pillar and mainstay of the truth” – Paul recognized none of that. That was not the model that Paul understood. There was not a principle of unity in Peter. “Only God, who makes things grow” is anything.

What was the “organizing” feature of Paul’s churches? What was the “principle of unity”? “Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.”

That’s all there is. And that is sufficient.

Published by John Bugay

"We are His workmanship," His poiema, His "poetry." If you've ever studied poetry, or struggled to write a poem, you understand the care God takes to "work all things together for good" in our lives. For this reason, and many others, I believe in the Sovereignty of God. I have seen His hand working in my life, and I submit myself to His merciful will, with all my being.

8 replies on “Paul and the proper place of unity”

  1. Fantastic! Again, more reason to reject the RC claim by examining the Scriptures. God has provided all that we need to shed light on doctrine and make the comparisons we need in order to determine truth from error. Keep up this great work brother!
    In Christ,


  2. John- What I don’t understand and what your post doesn’t address is your basis for implying that somehow Catholic doctrine contradicts St. Paul’s words in these passages. A Catholic reads St. Paul’s words and finds them completely in concord with Church teaching. As a matter of fact, it seems to me that you should take issue with, for starters, St. Paul’s comment: “For we are God’s fellow workers.” Interesting post, though. I always enjoy reading your posts and I appreciate you putting them out there. herbert


    1. Perry, of course not. I wouldn’t call sola fide a “later development.” The Reformers’ teachings on Justification were thoroughly Paul’s teachings on justification. It is more correct to look try to look at Paul’s teachings as a whole, then measure the writings of the Apostolic Fathers against them. I believe a very good case can be made that Paul’s teachings were muddied early on in the church

      T.F. Torrance has done so, in a work called “The Doctrine of Grace in the Apostolic Fathers.” He describes the concept of God’s grace in the Old Testament, along side concepts behind the word charis in Greek literature. He then makes the case that the meaning of “grace” is absolutely unique in the New Testament — Jesus was, of course, “full of grace and truth.” Torrance says, “in His own person [he was] the source of the whole conception” of “grace” in the New Testament, in “concrete manifestation: in the glad spontaneous fashion in which our Lord received sinners as in the instances of Matthew and Zacchaeus, of the sinful woman in Simon’s house and the woman brought before Him to be stoned, freely forgiving them, and in the eager compassion in which He healed the sick and suffering, as in His constant demand or mercy and forgiveness among men because of the love of God. Quite as compelling in presenting the features of grace is His teaching on the merciful and forgiving love of God, especially in parables such as the lost coin, the lost sheep, the lost son, the labourers in the vineyard, or the good Samaritan.” (22-23)

      He makes the point, “Jesus is constantly reminding men that they do not need anxiously to inquire whether they deserve that God’s favour shall fall upon them … An important element here is the absolute initiative of God’s redemptive love which is referred directly to the divine will That stands out very clearly in the parables (mentioned, and he provides a number of expressions in the Greek). Such initiative in the divine love completely takes man by surprise. God is among men with redemptive purpose before they are aware of it.” (23)

      He traces this concept of Grace through the Gospels and states, “It is [Jesus’s deliberate] identification of the grace of God in word and action with His own person and action that is so highly significant, for that became normative to all New Testament doctrine. Furthermore, as in the rest of the New Testament, this is particularly related on the lips of Jesus to His own death and resurrection as of divine redemptive significance for men. Again and again Jesus related the will of God for men’s salvation to His passion, especially at the last Supper, though it was only after the event that this action was seen by the utterly astonished disciples to be identified with the pure grace of God. In Christ’s death and resurrection they realised that God had given Himself fully to them in spite of their sin and quite independently of human effort or plans. It maade clear once for all that the saving initiative was absolutely with God. It was therefore impossible for man to approach God or face Him on the ground of achievement or merit or in the hope of reward. The whole basis of religion was altered–men now approached God because in Christ He [God] had committed Himself to them, and was already among them forgiving and saving.” (26)

      This is the concept that Paul immediately identifies with “grace” in his letters. Jesus Christ Himself in teaching and life is the source of Paul’s doctrine of grace. “By the grace of God I am what I am,” he says.

      “In its primary sense in St. Paul’s epistles grace has to do with the act of divine intervention rather than with our receiving it. Charis is now the presupposition of all man’s relations with God and constitutive of the whole Christian life. Grace is the decisive deed which makes the ground of our approach to God an act and word of His in which He is irrevocably committed. It means the establishing of something quite new among men, a new relation to God, not one in which the divine command forms the basis of our relations with God, but one in which the divine self-commitment invites us to approach Him on the grounds of love, because in Christ the divine will has been perfectly fulfilled on our behalf.” (29)

      I could go on and on in this vein, and Torrance did. He traces this concept all through Paul — “Charis is an eternal act” — “it is an eternal act that strikes at the roots of human history, and therefore is the fundamental antecedent to everything in the Christian life.”

      “Thus any attempt to detach grace in a transferred sense from the actual embodiment of God’s grace in Jesus Christ is to misunderstand the meaning of the Pauline charis altogether.” (33)

      However, through the pages of this book, Torrance does just that. It is interesting to note the variance in what “grace” meant for Paul, contrasted with other early Jewish concepts of Grace. D.A. Carson gave a series of lectures recently at RTS (which you can easily find at In these lectures, he notes that he worked his way through Josephus, making particular note of the concept of charis. Carson’s conclusion was that, for Josephus, God gave grace to those who earned it and deserved it. (I have some plans to transcribe this and post it here. But you can hear it for yourself in lecture #2).

      How completely does this concept of merit turn the charis of the New Testament on its head? Yet, in Torrance’s study, which is both theological and exegetical, in case after case — Clement, Ignatius, Didache, Barnabas, Hermas — charis was only given in association with the performance of certain works, deeds, or rituals. Charis had to be earned. Just as in the Jewish culture around them (as reported by Carson), “grace was something given by God to those who worthily strive after righteousness to enable them to attain their end. It was something to be acquired” (139).

      So within 50 or 100 years of the deaths of the apostles, the “vicious wolves,” as Paul so earnestly warned Timothy: “the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.” How quickly can we see the church falling away from the New Testament teaching of Grace?

      Of course, the New Testament concept of Grace was still evident, and many did understand it. But somehow, teachings of merit that were already evident in the “Apostolic Fathers” also became embedded in concepts of what it meant to be a Christian. It took the Reformation to rediscover that, and the Reformed Orthodox to try to begin to sort it all out.

      As I said, I hope to provide all of this in a fuller study, a little further on.


  3. Herbert, I would say that there is a night-and-day type of contrast, between what Paul viewed as his own and “apostolic” authority (i.e., it means “nothing”), and the citation I gave of “authority” as found in Lumen Gentium, which is somehow the notion that there was this “teaching authority” that really has meant “something” over the centuries.

    See, you are following the “Catholic Method.” You are assuming the current “teaching authority” of the Catholic Church, and you are then saying, “hmm, the Pope calls himself ‘God’s Servant,” so nothing Paul says contradicts Catholic teaching.”

    But what you need to do is to build an exegetical case from what Paul was saying, that leads to what the current situation is now. You cannot do so.


  4. Thanks for the response.

    From this lay person’s perspective, I don’t see that I have to “build an exegetical case” from anything. Why? Because that’s simply not my job. My job is to submit to the rightful Christian authorities.

    The question for me, then, isn’t “What exactly was St. Paul saying?” My question becomes: How do I identify the authority which Christ has provided for His Flock?

    And to answer that question, I’d recommend reading the article at responding to Doug Wilson’s comments concerning Apostolic Succession (and the subsequent comments.) If your system of belief is legitimate, and Scripture perspicuously reveals the truths of (your particular version of) Reformed theology, it shouldn’t be so hard for guys like you, Turretinfan, James White or Garret (above) to make a case, should it?
    thanks herbert


    1. Herbert — I can’t speak for any of the other individuals you mentioned — Turretinfan, James White, or Garret. I’ve put a posting up here — “Bryan Cross and Apostolic Succession.” I’ve tried to post it in the comments over there, but it wasn’t accepted. But take a look and let me know what you think.


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