Reconciliation with Peter and Paul

part 1 – the Past & Future Church

Peter and Paul, in a sense, championed two different mindsets about the Church which continue to cause some tensions for us today: Peter picked up on images of the Church that carried over from Judaism: a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s inheritance (1 Peter 2:9).  This was a focus on the continuity of God’s people since the beginning of time.  Paul, on the other hand, looks at the present progressive: what the Church is, is becoming, and will be.  The Body of Christ is by far his primary concept image of the Church.  This rings of something new and fresh, a new state of affairs for God’s people.

These two models do conflict with one another if you build your entire ecclesiology upon just one of them, but if we’re to be faithful to the whole counsel of Scripture then we’ll be careful to conceive of the Church in a way that encompasses both models – both an ancient unbroken continuous spiritual family of believers since the creation of the world, as well as an eschatological reality that exists in (and because of) Christ.  By being God’s chosen (or elect) people, we have an identity in eternity past, in God’s will, and by being the body & bride of Christ we have an identity in the eternal future.  If we stake our identities too much at one end, we’re prone to lose our grasp of the other.

part 2 – Peter & Paul’s models today

Something kind of interesting about all this is that we can actually see this tension played out somewhat in the Church today.  The Catholic churches (Roman, Eastern, some Anglicans) often tend to gravitate towards Peter’s vision of a continuous family since the dawn of time.  Their identity of the Church is strongly rooted in their history, but their realization of the Church as the Body of Christ sometimes comes through rather weakly.  There have been many periods of over-clericalism in the Catholic traditions (from a lack of realizing the diverse parts of the Body), as well as what can often be described as a fuzzy grasp of their purpose in this world (from a lack of fully realizing the eschatological nature of the Church).

On the other side of this coin are Protestants, whose theologies tend to put a huge emphasis on Paul’s writings.  In Protestant churches the concept of the Body of Christ and the purpose, direction, and diversity of the Church is generally well-understood.  What Protestants often neglect, though, is Peter’s contribution: the emphasis on what it really means to be part of Gods elect, this chosen race and royal priesthood.  As a result, a lot of decisions in matters of both faith and practice have been made in Protestant churches with very little regard to the historic Church, endangering the tenacity of their claim to believe in “one holy catholic apostolic Church.”

I don’t mean to say that Catholics only talk about Peter and Protestants only talk about Paul; of course both talk about both.  But there very often seems to be a subordination of one to the other.  Peter’s writings must be read in light of Paul’s letters, a Protestant might say.  Paul’s letters must be read in light of Peter’s teaching, a Catholic might say.

part 3 – Reconciling Peter & Paul

What we see in Galatians 2:11-21 is a report of Paul’s confrontation with Peter over an issue that stems from this exact sort of perspective problem.  Originally, Peter had embraced the Gentile inclusion in the Church – the story of Cornelius in Acts 10 makes this very clear.  But somewhere along the way, Peter gave in to pressure among his fellow Jewish Christians that there still were differences between the Gentile Christians and themselves, and he stopped eating with them.  He hadn’t become a Judaizer – a heretical group who insisted that Gentiles had to become Jews in order to become Christians – but his actions were beginning to affirm that camp.  Paul confronted Peter on this.  Two of his points of argument are that Christians are free from the old Law (a healthy separation from that part of their history), and now live in Christ (a reminder of the present progressive reality of the Church).

There isn’t a whole lot more information about this confrontation.  We know from Galatians 2:9 that Peter focused his ministry on Jewish Christians and Paul focused his ministry on Gentile Christians.  You could see that both as a liability and as a strategic move.  They’re both working where they work best, and where their favorite models of the Church will be the most well-received.  But if they don’t keep in touch with each other, then their ecclesiologies might clash.

In the end we know this didn’t turn out to be a long drawn out conflict.  Peter’s second letter affirms Paul’s letters as equal with Scripture!  And from what little we know of history, it seems that they were martyred very close to the same time, under Emperor Nero in Rome in probably 64AD.  As a Roman citizen, Paul would probably have been executed by beheading.  Tradition has it that Peter was crucified upside-down.  In one of his sermons (#295), St. Augustine wrote:

Both apostles share the same feast day, for these two were one; And even though they suffered on different days, they were as one. Peter went first, and Paul followed. And so we celebrate this day made holy for us by the apostles’ blood. Let us embrace what they believed, their life, their labors, their sufferings, their preaching, and their confession of faith.

part 4 – Reconciliation in the Church today

I think this observation & exhortation is quite pertinent to what we’ve seen about the differences between Peter & Paul, and the Church today playing favorites between them.  Catholicism and Protestantism are also two different things, yet also ought to be one.  Celebrating these two Apostles together on the same day, I think, is a beautiful picture of reconciliation.  They could have argued about whose model of the Church was better for the rest of their lives.  But instead they ended up teaching and preaching in the same city, and both their writings are upheld as sacred Scripture.

Far be it from us to play favorites between them and their respective parts of the New Testament!  As we learn from their teachings through Scripture, let us also learn from their examples through their historical testimonies, as today’s collect prays:

Almighty God, whose blessed apostles Peter and Paul glorified You by their martyrdom: Grant that Your Church, instructed by their teaching and example, and knit together in unity by Your Spirit, may ever stand firm upon the one foundation, which is Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with You, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

The Church is bigger and richer than any one model or image can encompass.  We can put the Church into a box no more than we can put God into a box.  Only when we start putting together all the pieces that we have onto the “the one foundation, which is Jesus,” will we start to find ways to reconcile estranged members of God’s Chosen People, this Royal Priesthood, the Body of Christ, the Bride of Christ.

O God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, our only Savior, the Prince of Peace: Give us grace seriously to lay to heart the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions; take away all hatred and prejudice, and whatever else may hinder us from godly union and concord; that, as there is but one Body and one Spirit, one hope of our calling, one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all, so we may be all of one heart and of one soul, united in one holy bond of truth and peace, of faith and charity, and may with one mind and one mouth glorify thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

About Fr. Brench

I'm an Anglican Priest and a sci-fi geek. Therefore, I write about liturgy & spiritual formation, theology & biblical studies, and Doctor Who. But I keep those blogs separate so I don't confuse too many people!
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