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Review: The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West

introspective conscience

This article was originally part of The Paul Page, a site dedicated to academic study of the apostle, with special focus on the work of N.T. Wright. Reviewed by Bill DeJong.

Essay Review

Krister Stendahl, “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West” in Paul Among Jews and Gentiles (Philadelphia: Fortress), 1976, pp. 78-96. First published in English in Harvard Theological Review, 56 (1963), pp. 199-215.

Legend has it that the apostle Paul was “a man small of stature, with a bald head and crooked legs, in a good state of body, with eyebrows meeting and nose somewhat hooked.” This physical profile of Paul, found in the apocryphal Acts of Paul and composed by a second century presbyter from Asia on the basis of circulating traditions, was seriously doubted by Tertullian, but ardently believed by his contemporary, Hippolytus of Rome.

This early lack of consensus regarding Paul’s physical profile also characterizes current depictions of his psychological profile. Whereas since Augustine Christians have generally regarded Paul’s conversion as the transformation of a troubled conscience, convicted of sin by the law, to a comfortable conscience, soothed by Christ and His remedy of forgiveness, Krister Stendahl proposes that Paul’s conscience, according to the biblical presentation at least, was remarkably robust and rarely if ever plagued.

The former professor at the Divinity School of Harvard University first presented this critique of the traditional analysis of Paul’s conscience, not insignificantly, at the Annual Meeting of the American Psychological Association on September 3, 1961. Stendahl’s thesis, which was first published in Swedish (1960), then revised and published in English (1963), has taken its place in Pauline scholarship as one of the pivotal essays in the formation of what James D.G. Dunn has dubbed “the new perspective on Paul.”

According to Stendahl, the quest of the plagued conscience began with Augustine whoseConfessions are “the first great document in the history of introspective conscience” and climaxed with Luther (p. 85). Prior to Augustine, the church had read Paul accurately in terms of the question, what does the Messiah’s arrival mean for (a) the law (not legalism) and (b) the relationship between Jews and Gentiles? Since Augustine, the church has misread Paul in terms of the question, how can I find a gracious God?

Luther and the subsequent reformers read Paul’s statements about faith and works, law and gospel, Jews and Gentiles “in the framework of late medieval piety” (pp. 85-86) such that the law quickly became associated with legalism. “Where Paul was concerned about the possibility for Gentiles to be included in the messianic community, his statements are now read as answers to the quest for assurance about man’s salvation out of a common human predicament” (p. 86).

To illustrate what he means, Stendahl appeals to Luther’s understanding of Galatians 3:24 to illustrate the second use of the law. Whereas Paul clearly envisioned the law as the custodian for the Jews until the arrival of the Messiah, Luther reversed the argument to assert that the law is the schoolmaster for everyone to crush self-righteousness and lead to Christ (pp. 86,87). Furthermore, the law is no longer the law of Moses which has become obsolete, but God’s moral imperative as such.

Stendahl concludes, “Paul’s argument that the Gentiles must not and should not come to Christ via the Law, i.e., via circumcision, etc. has turned into a statement according to which all men must come to Christ with consciences properly convicted by the Law and its insatiable requirements for righteousness. So drastic is the reinterpretation once the original framework of ‘Jews and Gentiles’ is lost, and the Western problems of conscience become its unchallenged and self-evident substitute” (p. 87).

Stendahl derives central support for this thesis from Phillippians 3:6, where Paul alleges that prior to his conversion he kept the law blamelessly. What he regards and discards as refuse in his prior life are not his shortcomings in law-keeping, but his achievements and distinctions as a Jew, from circumcision to persecuting the Christian church. This interpretation, alleges Stendahl, finds support in the narrative of Paul’s conversion in Acts 9 which is not portrayed in terms of the restoration of a plagued conscience (p. 80), but in terms of his calling to apostleship (p. 85).

Paul’s chief sin, according to Stendahl, was his persecution of the church, the climax of his dedication to the Jewish faith (Gal.1.13; Phil.3.6). When Paul says that Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom he was chief, he is not expressing contrition in the present tense, but referring back to his career of blaspheming and persecuting. God, however, had revealed to him his true Messiah and made him an apostle and a prototype of sinner’s salvation (cf. Rom.5:6-11).

But what about Romans 2 and 3 which deal with the impossibility of law-keeping? Stendahl rightly indicates that the law never expected perfection of the Jew but made provisions for repentance and forgiveness. Paul’s objective in these chapters is simply to show his readers that the law was helpless to Israel because ultimately it pronounced upon her the same guilty sentence under which the Gentiles already lived.

Paul makes these remarks, Stendahl observes, to introduce the new avenue of salvation for Jews and Gentiles which has opened up in Christ, a salvation not based upon law, which formerly distinguished the two. The old covenant, with its provisions of forgiveness and grace, is no longer valid; salvation must be found in Christ. Christ, therefore, is not the answer to a plagued conscience, but the new avenue of salvation for both Jews and Gentiles (p. 81).

That a plagued conscience was a problem for Paul is true neither prior to, nor after, his conversion. It is difficult to find “any evidence that Paul the Christian had suffered under the burden of conscience regarding personal shortcomings which he would label ‘sins'” (Italics original, p. 82). Forgiveness is the term for salvation used least of all in Pauline writings and not at all in the “undisputed” Pauline epistles (footnote 4, p. 82).

Paul knew that the baptized were not free from sin, but such sin apparently did not trouble his conscience. In fact, in Acts 23:1, he says, “Brethren, I have lived before God in all good conscience up to this day” (cf. 24:16). He did struggle with his body (1 Cor. 9:27), but the tone is one of confidence. Romans 9:1 and 2 Cor.1:12 both witness to his good conscience, the confidence of which reaches its highest pitch in 2 Cor.5:10ff., where Paul expresses certainty that the Lord will approve of him. His “robust conscience is not shaken, but strengthened by his awareness of a final judgment which has not yet come” (cf. 1 Cor.4:4; p. 90).

To search for a statement in which Paul would speak about himself as a sinner is futile, argues Stendahl. He does often speak of ‘weakness’ (2 Cor.11.21ff; 2 Cor. 12.9-10), but weakness is unrelated to sin or conscience (v. 7), with the exception of Romans 5, where ‘weak’ is synonymous with sinner (p. 91).

The last section of the essay is devoted to Romans 7 about which Stendahl asserts that Paul is involved in an argument about the law, not man’s ego or predicament. In fact, the ego is acquitted in the words: “Now if I do what I do not want, then it is not I who do it, but the sin which dwells in me” (Stendahl’s italics). If Paul were describing man’s predicament, this line of thought would be impossible. The human impasse has been argued in Romans 1-3 and every possible excuse has been carefully ruled out.

Paul is using the familiar anthropological distinction between what one ought to do and what one does to distinguish good Law from bad Sin, thereby enabling Paul to blame Sin and Flesh and to rescue Law as a good gift of God. Subsequent interpreters did not struggle with law in the sense that Paul did and thus reduced this passage to anthropology and the nature of man and sin. “This is what happens when one approaches Paul with the Western question of an introspective conscience” (p. 93). “The West for centuries has wrongly surmised that the biblical writers were grappling with problems which no doubt are ours, but which never entered their consciousness” (p. 95).

Stendahl’s essay, which weaves together biblical exegesis, historical interpretation and sociological analysis, is delightfully provocative and demonstrative of a brilliant mind. He is entirely correct in his assertion that Western interpreters of Paul have all too often reduced the real dynamic in his polemic, i.e., the relationship between Jews and Gentiles, to one of morbid introspection and individual psychology and thereby all too eagerly exchanged historia salutis for ordo salutis. His remarks about Galatians 3:24 are entirely to the point.

Nevertheless, Stendahl’s contention that consciences troubled by sin have their origin in Augustine and the subsequent Western mind is untenable. King David, hardly a Westerner, enjoyed a robust conscience for the most part (cf. 2 Sam.22:22; Pss. 7, 17, 18, 26), but also repeatedly sought forgiveness to ease his plagued conscience. In Psalm 32, he laments, “When I kept silent, my bones grew old, through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me … I acknowledged my sin to you” and in Psalm 51 he cries out, “Have mercy upon me, O God.”

Jesus presents this latter petition as the sine qua non of the believer in his parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18. It was the tax collector who went home justified because he humbled himself, beating his breast and crying out, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!”

Luther and traditional Western interpreters, therefore, are correct to depict the forgiveness of sins as the remedy for consciences troubled by sin (the apostle John certainly does in 1 John 1:5-2:2); they are not always correct in locating the biblical basis for this depiction. Stendhal is largely on track when he accuses Western interpreters of losing sight of Paul’s chief polemic regarding the relationship between Jews and Gentiles in their quest to find timeless truths about the law, sin, repentance and forgiveness.

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