Why Contemporary Moral Theology Needs Saint Paul

Michael Cullinan FAITH Magazine May-June 2009

Fr Michael Cullinan, a priest of Westminster Diocese, argues that development towards a more relational approach to ethics needs the insights of St Paul. Fr Cullinan has recently published a book entitled Victor Paul Furnish's Theology of Ethics in Saint Paul (Tesi Academiae Alfonsianae, 3; Rome: Editiones Academiae Alfonsianae, 2007)


Claiming that the epistles of St Paul have a place in modern Catholic moral theology is met all too frequently, at least in this writer's experience, with incomprehension, raised eyebrows, and surprised remarks, even from Catholic theologians. The truth is that St Paul's teachings are not popular in most Catholic circles. We have a kind of race memory of how they were used at the Reformation, or perhaps an actual memory of evangelical students shouting phrases such as 'Justification by faith!' at us, and, like the dog beaten when it was a puppy, the mere sight of a stick is often enough to make us cringe or growl. There is also a popular perception that Paul is misogynist, indeed I know of one Catholic group that refuses to have the Sunday reading about the duties of wives and husbandsfrom Ephesians when it comes up at their annual meeting. Nor is Paul's unpopularity limited to Catholics. The Anglican Bishop of Durham, himself a biblical scholar, relates how one of his colleagues once described St Paul as, 'A wicked man! A very wicked man!' and believes that the English in particular are often deeply suspicious of him.

Academically, this kind of prejudice simply won't do, of course. In order to demonstrate that the study of Paul is a natural part of moral theology, it shouldn't really be necessary to say more than that our theology has to come from the scriptures and that Paul's epistles are part of divine revelation. We can also point to the great respect in which Paul was held by the Fathers and the medieval scholastics, shown, for example, by the many commentaries on his epistles that were written, including several by St Thomas Aquinas whose Summa Theologiae uses Paul a great deal. In the present day, we can also point to the important ecumenical reasons for Catholics to face Paul squarely.

Paul and Ethics

Something more does have to be said about the use of scripture in moral theology, however, because it is not always clear that moral theology is actually part of theology. It may once have been, but ethics is formally independent of theology, and for many years casuistic approaches to moral theology made the subject seem more allied to law than to dogma, and gave it at least a claim to have developed a methodological independence of its own. Furthermore, the Catholic emphasis on the role of natural law does nothing to dispel the idea that too much use of scripture in moral argument can be inappropriate or impolitic because it can make universal truths seem to be based only upon specific revelation.

It is, of course true that revelation builds upon nature and that the Second Vatican Council decreed that 'the scientific exposition of moral theology should be more nourished by the teaching of holy scripture',[1] and, indeed, that such an important document as Vehtatis Splendor is heavily based on the New Testament, including Paul. But greater use of scripture has brought its own problems which an honest advocate for it should frankly acknowledge. Scripture, and especially Paul, is unsystematic. Systematic exposition cannot get over this problem by simply relegating the use of scripture to 'proof texts' if it is to be academically respectable. A much deeper engagement with the whole text is necessary. This, of course, then exposesus to the icy winds of biblical criticism, which, even allowing for its various schools of thought, force us to accept that the texts are, if not exactly inconsistent, at least very pluriform, including the epistles of Paul once the problem of their authorship is acknowledged.[2]

Paul, in particular, often says hard things - as has been known ever since 2 Peter 3:15 was written.[3] So it is no surprise if his writings are often treated with a degree of caution. Indeed, a student of Paul looking at Veritatis Splendor (with an admittedly prejudiced eye!) might be tempted to compare its use of Paul with the presentation of a small boy to important guests. The enfant terrible is gingerly presented to the assembled company and allowed to say a few words, but is then immediately sent back upstairs in case he says altogether too much!

Accepting, then, that the use of scripture in moral theology is not easy, and that Pauline scholarship is especially fraught, one might reasonably ask, why bother at all? Do we not have the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount? Do we not also have the natural law and the teaching of the Church? Why do we need to pore over Paul's difficult letters? It will be argued below that we very much do need Paul's letters if we are to have a proper idea of what Christian moral theology is. Paul teaches us much about what moral reflection and teaching is, and about what a human moral agent is, avoiding a narrow legalism or a concentration on natural law that each ignore the need for grace and so run the risk of being closer to Pelagian ethics than to Catholic moral theology. There isn't roomhere to do more than illustrate the case with a few examples, but an attempt will be made to show how rich Paul's view of ethics is, how his teaching on law is original and relevant, how his emphasis on love is important, and how he forces us to consider not only the human act that, as St Thomas says, is what moral theology is all about, but also the adjectival human agent transformed by the grace of the Holy Spirit into a friend, indeed a child of God.

Paul and Moral Subtlety

The richness of Paul's view of ethics is best seen by first confronting another objection to looking at them. In the words of one older Catholic biblical scholar to this writer, 'But did Paul have any ethics?' Behind this scepticism is the view of the early 20th century German liberal Protestant Martin Dibelius, who applied form criticism to Paul's epistles and, noticing that the specific ethical teaching often comes in a section at the end of the epistle, concluded that it had nothing to do with the earlier dogmatic teaching but was simply Greekparaenesis (a type of classical moral instruction) hurriedly imported to provide moral formation to the new Christians when the end of the world failed to arrive. Other scholars saw dependence on Jewish ethics in the epistles, and one canalso see echoes of the Sermon on the Mount in Rom. 12:14 ('Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them'). Like many other old liberal Protestant ideas, Dibelius's view passed into wide circulation in the Catholic world when biblical studies engaged with modern historical criticism at the time of the Second Vatican Council.

If it were really the case that Paul's specific ethical teachings were unthinkingly imported from contemporary culture, they would have little theological authority. Dibelius's view was, however, comprehensively refuted by the American Methodist biblical scholar Victor Furnish in 1959.[4] Furnish showed that Paul was a critical and selective user of contemporary material, that his exhortations are significantly different from classical paraenesis, and that his specific ethical teaching is inseparably linked to his theological teaching. His ethics do not simply follow on from his theology as a humdrum practical necessity after the really important doctrinal bit (as the Lutheran tradition tended to believe). Rather his ethics and histheology are two sides of the same coin which is the Christian gospel.

Behind Dibelius's view, however, there lies a more fundamental error, which is to identify ethics with specific commands. In this view, you find out what Paul's ethics are by going through his epistles discarding all the theology and filleting out the commands and prohibitions. You can then compare what you have left with other ethical teaching that has been similarly filleted or deboned. This legalist procedure has been criticised very well by the Dominican moral theologian Servais Pinckaers as 'clumsy and materialistic' and 'like attempting to compare one person's face with another by eliminating all the features they have in common; this process would disfigure them both'.[5] It is one thing to say that ethics includes commands andprohibitions, but quite another to say it is nothing more.

Perhaps the best example of how Paul does much more than issue commands is his shortest epistle: Philemon. Often ignored because of its size, this letter shows all the features of an authentic Pauline epistle. Paul writes to Philemon because a runaway slave of his called Onesimus has been converted by Paul in prison. Paul sends Onesimus back to him and asks Philemon not only to forgive him and receive him as a brother but to allow Paul to have him for the sake

of the gospel. Paul makes it clear that he has the right to command Philemon to release Onesimus but explains, 'for love's sake I prefer to appeal to you' and finishes, 'Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.' This shows Paul's moral subtlety, and that there can be much more to ethics than bald commands. Asking can produce much more than demanding and, indeed, we are all bound to do more than any set of specific commands can spell out. Paul is a teacher rather than a lawgiver and wants Christians to internalise their obedience rather than live in mere external conformity to rules. This epistle also, incidentally, shows how Paul links doctrine (faith) to ethics (the good) when he prays that 'the sharing of your faith may promote theknowledge of all the good that is ours in Christ.'

Paul and Law

Does this mean that there is no place for law in Paul's ethics? Does Paul advocate an ethic without any specific and definite norms? If this were the case, Paul's epistles would not be an adequate basis for Catholic moral theology. Some people interpret Paul in an existential way that leaves no room for unchanging commandments. I don't want to go into the debate about how we can recognise unchangeable precepts in scriptural texts from a particular culture, but I believe we can say that Paul does take some ethical precepts for granted as universally binding and hands them on to his congregations. I think, for example, of the prohibition against porneia (usually translated as 'sexual immorality') in 1 Thess. 4:3 and the excommunication of someone living with his father's wife in 1Cor. 5:1-5. In 1 Thessalonians Paul uses the rare word paraggelias (which Jerome translated as praecepta) for the matters he is passing on. This word certainly has overtones of command rather than merely good advice. In 1 Corinthians Paul simply assumes that a certain kind of behaviour is unquestionably unacceptable, while in the same letter making very careful moral distinctions between matters covered by a 'word of the Lord' (for example against divorce), matters he himself advises are best (keeping an unbelieving wife), and matters intrinsically indifferent where we must be governed by respect for the consciences of others (eating butcher's meat which may have come from offerings to idols). Therefore Paul does seem to be open to absolute precepts.

Paul's attitude to the Jewish law, and so to law in general, remains a topic of heated controversy among Protestant scriptural exegetes. Even in the Catholic world we have our continuing debates. Just before Vatican II there was a tremendous reaction away from legalism and casuistry which, it seems, some theologians even wanted the Council to condemn formally. This has been paralleled in Western society by a swing towards anarchic relativism, which itself is now being undermined by its increasingly apparent destructive consequences and inner contradictions. This, in turn, has led many young Catholics to swing antithetically back to the old rule-based morality, seeking out the old pre-Conciliar manuals, devouring them avidly, and propagating them on the Web. If we are to hope for abalanced synthesis we do well to take care before beginning a discussion. First of all we should be aware of our own historical and cultural presuppositions, from which not even biblical exegetes are exempt. For example we need to think about just what we mean by law. Do we mean natural law, the Law of Moses, positive law, or law in general? The medieval theologians spoke of ages of nature, of law, and of grace, and one of Thomas's enduring achievements was to keep these three concepts in balance, whereas Lutheranism, for example, set up an antithesis between law and gospel.

We should, therefore, be cautious about dealing too definitively with the question, but it does seem possible to say that Paul is not absolutely antithetical to law in general. He is open to ideas of natural law and virtue, but he does not place them at the forefront of his ethical teaching. He seems to invoke the idea of natural law more to understand how those who live without the Law of Moses can still be held guilty and responsible before God than as the foundation of moral reasoning. Paul does not mention nature often, but he does refer to Gentiles doing by nature what the law requires and so having the 'work' {ergon) of the law written in their hearts in Romans 2:15.[6] Even Furnish, who does not come from a natural lawtradition, is happy, for example, to see Greek natural law ideas behind Paul's incidental remarks in 2 Cor. 12:14 on parents' duty to save up for their children. Furnish also concedes that Paul sees a significant convergence between what society recognises as good and what may be discerned as the 'good and acceptable and perfect will of God' (cf. Rom. 12:2). So Paul does have ideas of nature and natural law. He mentions virtue only once (Phil. 4:8) as a good thing to acquire if you can. He describes the Law of Moses as good, and allows Jewish converts to keep at least some of it, but forbids Gentiles to assume it because to make law observance a fundamental religious obligation would empty Christ's death of its meaning and deny the experience that the Holy Spirit had been given to all onthe basis of faith. Paul's teaching on positive law, at least as found in the section on rulers in Rom. 13:1-8, is certainly not anarchistic, indeed on the contrary this passage has too often been interpreted to justify absolutism.

However, while Paul is open to law, he also has some hard things to say about it, things which those of us brought up on the Ten Commandments do well to take on board. The commandment can be holy, just, and good, but at the same time it can arouse passions and increase sin: 'What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet, if it had not been for the law, I should not have known sin. I should not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, "You shall not covet"' (Rom 7:7b). Now this and other texts such as Gal. 3:19 were used by some, for example by Bultmann, to claim that law was actually designed to provoke sin so as to make people aware of their need for salvation. The idea that the law made people aware of their need for salvation because they could not keepit is in both Ambrosiaster and Augustine.[7] Other texts are less clear in their meaning, for

example when Paul says law was introduced 'for transgressions' did he mean this was in order to prevent or promote them. Romans 7 does seem to say quite clearly that law can do harm as well as good: that, at the very least, it can have side effects. This should accord very well with our experience, even without the discoveries of modern psychology, and should make us pause before we expect too much of law.

Paul and Love

Perhaps Paul's most important teaching on law, however, is that the Law of Moses is summed up in the commandment to love one's neighbour. Interestingly Paul puts less stress on our loving God, preferring to speak of faith and obedience, perhaps because he is only too aware how bad we are at being able to love. Faith, however, is 'energised' by love (Gal. 5:6) which Paul identifies with the Holy Spirit. In contrast to the Greek ideal of freedom as independence from others, Paul warns 'do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another' (Gal. 5:13b), and so sees freedom as being 'bound to one another in a love that cares and serves', as Furnish puts it. In 1 Cor. 8, Paul bases his teaching about eating meat offered to idols on the principlethat love is more important than knowledge. This love is what Catholic tradition calls charity, and it is, in one sense, a demand far surpassing all the precepts of Moses. Indeed the love command is described by Furnish as a duty independent of feelings, as being measured by comparison not with self-love but with divine love, as unrestricted in nature and scope, and as requiring the whole person including our feelings, and as not able to pick and choose its object. From a meta-ethical point of view this suggests the idea that ethics could be based on this command without falling back into narrow legalism, an idea worth further study, not least in the development of natural law theory. Furnish made these points in 1972, but this writer is not aware of much that has been done since byprofessional ethicists to make love more central to ethics.[8] From the theological point of view, however, since charity is a theological virtue, love introduces us to the last important feature of Pauline ethics: grace.

Paul and Grace

Faced with an ethics based purely on natural law, one suspects that Paul would initially retort that natural man, since the coming of sin, is incapable of keeping the natural law. Even with the assistance of God's revelation in the Ten Commandments, 'I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do' (Rom. 7:19). Paul's ethical teaching is not for natural man but for man renewed by the Holy Spirit. Once again, given our perennial temptation towards Pelagianism, this can make some of us somewhat uncomfortable. We want, for example, to emphasise the gratuitousness of grace in contrast to natural moral obligation. We might do well here to reread the locus classicus of Catholic teaching on this: the Decrees of Trent on justification. We cannot be rightbefore God without His prevenient grace. Trent does define that the observance of the commandments is not impossible, but it adds, for those justified and in a state of grace.[9]

The theology of grace easily seems very abstract and remote, but we should remember that it used to be taught as part of fundamental moral rather than dogmatic theology, as it often still is by the Dominicans. In fact the issues surrounding the relationship of nature and grace do keep coming up in pastoral situations, not least in sacramental preparation. They are not as remote from our moral lives as it might initially seem. When this material is presented in a way that is too philosophical and abstract, it too can, perhaps, benefit from a return to the scriptures which reveal what God has actually done as opposed to what he might or might not have done. So, for example, to the important point that God's grace is a free gift, the scriptures propose the historical truth of Christ's deathand so lead us to the theological conclusion that God has in fact chosen to pour out his gifts for all. Again, debates about freewill and predestination continue in each century, whether the adversary of freedom is alleged, (all too often in abdication of personal responsibility!), to be God's sovereignty, nineteenth century Newtonian physical determinism, or twentieth century biological genetic determinism. In fact there were also similar debates about the place of God, free will, fate, and angels in the Judaism of Paul's time.[10] Looking into these matters (for example the disputes between Jesuits and Dominicans about sufficient and efficient grace) is not always pleasant, but after we have studied the more abstract ideas ofpredestination and election, it is a relief to read Paul's saying that he does not live but rather Christ lives in him, his assurance that God wants everyone to be saved, and his confidence that while he does believe he will face divine judgement, he still cannot see how anything can separate him from Christ's love.

Paul certainly doesn't give easy solutions to the problems of grace and free will but he does give us more hope than many others who have discussed these matters, and his writings remain the main battlegrounds over which these theological questions are fought out.

Paul and Man

More generally in the context of moral reasoning, Paul's emphasis on our becoming children of God and his discussion of Christ's indwelling and human inability force us, in tune with some aspects of modernity, to consider the human agent as well as the human act and so make a place for Christian anthropology in moral reasoning. This in turn allows room for personalism and, for example, helps us to repair the damaging split that developed between a legalistic and naturalistic moral theology on the one hand and a separate personalistic spiritual theology on the other, as well as challenging the Western tendency to subordinate person to nature and grace to law.


This article has tried merely to outline a case for the importance of Paul in contemporary Catholic moral reflection. Like the apostle's own letters, it does not claim to be systematic, complete, or to have discussed matters thoroughly. Paul's ethic is not a simple ethic of law, duty, virtue, or utility. It is not clearly egoist or consequentialist. Yet amid the competing claims of all these categories, Paul focuses the eyes of Christian ethics on the importance of the grace of the Holy Spirit. I would claim that while Paul is not the only source of ethical teaching in the New Testament and certainly not the easiest, he was the first Catholic moral theologian. In an age which increasingly flirts with Pelagianism and relativism we neglect him at our peril.

[1]Author's translation. The original is 'Specialis cura impendatur Theologiae morali perficiendae, cuius scientifica expositio, doctrina S. Scripturae magis nutrita, celsitudinem vocationis fidelium in Christo illustret eorumque obligationem in caritate pro mundi vita fructum ferendi' (Second Vatican Council, Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests Optatam Totius,! 6).

[2]incidentally, the disputed authorship of some of the epistles, while bringing its own problems, also makes it easier to acquit Paul of the charge of misogyny. There is little in the undisputed epistles that could be seen as misogynist, indeed Paul's view of marriage is remarkable for its equal treatment of husband and wife and the recognition of the ministry of women. On the other hand, epistles less likely to be directly from Paul's lips are more likely to be conventional in their attitudes.

[3]'So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures' (RSV).

[4]In Furnish's doctoral dissertation, published as Victor Paul Furnish, Paul's Exhortations in the Context of His Letters and Thought (Microcard Theological Studies, 36; Madison, WI: Microcard Foundation, 1960; University of Yale Ph.D. Dissertation). This dissertation is quite hard to obtain because the microcard technology is now obsolete. I have summarised it in my own published dissertation Michael Patrick Cullinan, Victor Paul Fumish's Theology of Ethics in Saint Paul (Tesi Academiae Alfonsianae, 3; Rome: Editiones Academiae Alfonsianae, 2007). Furnish's views are well presented in his later book Theology and Ethics in Paul (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1968).

[5]See Servais Pinckaers, The Sources of Christian Ethics, trans. M. Noble (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995); orig pub. as Les sources de la morale chretienne (Fribourg: Fribourg University Press, 1985,19933), 107,108.

[6]Paul's other references to 'nature' and 'natural' are somewhat mixed. He refers to natural and unnatural relations by women and men in Rom. 1:26—27, to those uncircumcised by nature in Rom. 2:27, to those who are Jews by nature rather than sinners out of the nations in Gal. 2:15, and to Jews as the natural branches and Gentiles as cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree and grafted against nature into a cultivated olive tree in Rom. 11:21, 24. He appeals to nature only once, in 1 Cor. 11:14 on why long hair is degrading for men but women's pride.

[7]See Jeffrey P. Greenman and Timothy Larson (eds.), Reading Romans through the Centuries: From the Early Church to Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, MN: Brazos Press, 2005), 35, 77.

[8]See Victor P. Furnish, The Love Command in the New Testament (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1972).

[9]Council of Trent, Decree on Justification, ch XI, c. 18.

[10]See, for example, John M. G Barclay, and Simon Gathercole (eds.), Divine and Human Agency in Paul and his Cultural Environment (Library of New Testament Studies, 335; London: T&T Clark, 2006).

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