Robbing Paul To Pay Peter


Chapter XIII

The study now touches upon a phase of Paul’s relation to Christianity that involves a portion of early Christian history which is generally unknown to the laity or the people at large. It is the Peter-Paul controversy, so-called. It was a factional dispute in the early Church between two sides representing respectively the spiritual and the literal construction of Scripture. There appears to be evidence that there was a Petrine party upholding the historical interpretation of the Messiahship and the Gospel narrative, opposed to a Pauline faction that stood for the esoteric mystical meaning of all Scripture.

Massey is speaking of the great gulf that separated these two views and their factional advocates in early Christianity when he makes this drastic declaration:

"The bodies of two million martyrs of free thought, put to death as heretics in Europe alone, and all the blood that has ever been shed in Christian wars, have failed to fill that gulf which waits as ever wide-jawed for its prey."

There is first the matter found in the Clementine Homilies, which is ostensibly inspired by the Petrine faction. The author, assumed to be Clement of Rome, designates Paul as "the Hostile Man." Peter is made to say to Paul, "Thou hast opposed thyself as an Adversary against me, the firm rock, the foundation of the Church." Paul’s conversion by means of abnormal visions is attributed to the false Christ, the Gnostic and Spiritualist Christ opposed to a historic Christ. Peter is hitting obviously at Paul in Homily 17, when he says, "Can anyone be instituted to the office of a teacher through visions?" Paul is treated as the arch-enemy of the Christ crucified--he is declared the very Anti-Christ! He is predicted to be the author of some great heresy expected to break out in the future. Peter is said to have declared that Christ instructed the disciples not to publish the one true and genuine Gospel for the present, because false teachers must arise, who would publicly proclaim the false Gospel of the Anti-Christ, that was the Christ of the Gnostics. "As the true Prophet has told us, the false Gospel must come from a certain misleader." The true Gospel was confessedly "held in reserve, to be secretly transmitted for rectification of future heresies." The Petrine party knew well enough what had to come out if Paul’s preaching, proclaimed in his original Epistles, got vent in wide broadcast. Hence those who were the followers of Peter and James anathematized him as the great apostate and rejected his Epistles. Justin Martyr never once mentions this founder of Christianity, never once refers to the writings of Paul. Strangest thing of all is that the Book of Acts, which is mainly the history of Paul, should contain no account of his martyrdom or death at Rome. Paul’s writings seem to have been withheld for a full century after his death.

According to Massey, "The Praedicatio Petri declared that Peter and Paul remained unreconciled until death." Klausner (85) refers to the dispute between Peter and Paul over the observance of the ceremonial laws, circumcision and forbidden foods.

Clement of Alexandria states that Paul, before going to Rome, said that he would bring to the brethren the Gnosis, or tradition of the hidden mysteries, as the fulfillment of the blessings of Christ, who, Clement says, reveals the secret knowledge and trains the Gnostic by Mysteries, i.e., revelations made in the state of trance. Thus Paul was going as a Gnostic and therefore as the natural opponent of historic Christianity, the promulgation of which was the aim of the Petrine party. Massey declares it was the work of Peter to make the Mysteries exoteric in a human history. It was the work of Paul to prevent this by explaining the Gnosis. Paul warns against the preaching of that "other Gospel" and that "other Jesus."

The data on the subject are none too full or explicit. Controversy could easily rage over it. The gist of the matter is, however, apparent. Christianity started as Gnosticism, became vitiated by the introduction of exoteric elements and proceeded along the track of that course of literalization and historization which made it acceptable to all the ignorant and repellent to all the intelligent. Endless controversy arose between the leaders of the two trends and it appears that Paul was arrayed against Peter. If it was not Paul, the subjective esotericist, against Peter, the objective exotericist, it was at least Pauline spirituality against Petrine literalism. As has so often been admitted by scholars, Paul preached the gospel of the immanent Christ; Peter stood for the fact and the message of a personal Jesus. The resolution of the controversy in favor of the Petrine party was fateful for the whole future of Christianity and the Occident. It committed the Catholic Church to an effort to organize the whole world under its aegis in an earthly body, in which effort it has achieved so large a success, but also in which, by the very fact of its adapting its message to a form of attraction for the less intelligent masses, it has lost its own interior meaning, its profoundest spiritual genius. No one can predict history unless he is blessed with some power of vaticination, but it is reasonable to assume that had the Pauline wing of the early movement prevailed, the service of Christianity to the Western peoples over sixteen centuries would have brought more of benison than it has done.

But the matter of this controversy is not ready to be dismissed with the treatment given. The obligation to deal fully with its historical implications rests heavily on anyone treating the development of early Christianity. The early Petrine victory has fixed the character and set the course of all following Christian influence, and as this course and character have been defended, ecclesiastical polity has ever since stood stoutly behind the historical interpretation of scripture. Scholars and theologians in every camp have inveterately lauded the Church’s third-century choice of Petrine as against Pauline theology and they have without limit hailed that choice as Christianity’s escape and salvation from the evils of Gnostic doctrinism and Pauline mystical spirituality. It is the purpose of this study to challenge the dominance and the tenability of this posture and to refute its basic contentions. It is the thesis that the Church, Christianity and religion itself lost immeasurably by following after Peter instead of Paul. Our contentions on this score will fly directly into the face of all orthodox scholastic opinion and will doubtless invite bitter scorn and condemnation. But truth is important and worth the cost one often has to pay for it.

Bacon has so well stated the conventional and established view on the matter that it will serve the purpose handidly to let him present it. In his Jesus and Paul (p. 138) he is speaking of Mark’s Gospel and says that, try as he would, Mark finds it impossible to make his recital the story of a real man under actual historical conditions, and at the same time the story of the superhuman being who steps down into incarnation from "heaven" and who is treated in the Christology of the Gnostics as a "principle" and not as a man. The combination is attempted, however, says Bacon, and Paul’s influence is seen pressing on the side of the subjective Christhood. John carried the subjectivization of the Christ even further, but, says Bacon, it is fortunate indeed for us that the move in the direction taken by Paul and John could not be carried through to triumph. John came close to making the "life" of Jesus one long ode of spiritual transfiguration, ignoring the mundane Jesus on his personal side. John was more a history of abstract Christhood than of the Christ himself. Then, asserts Bacon, we all know how fatal would have been the result for real religious values if the later Gospel--John--had completely superseded all its predecessors. Mark superseded all earlier Gospels (this is a bit strange, since many scholars have made Mark the earliest Gospel). Then John had carried the apotheosis still beyond Mark. Had the transference of human to purely spiritual character in the Christos been carried through to final victory, the real and historical Jesus would have been completely eclipsed behind the raptures of spiritual exaltation and mystic rapports. The solid ground of plain, hard fact underneath the Christian structure would have disappeared. Our science of religion would have been reduced, alleges Bacon, to the tiny dimensions of a figure scarcely more substantial than the mythical heroes of the Mysteries. We can be thankful that the whole Gospel was not written in the mystic style, as displayed in the stories of the baptism and the transfiguration, that there was so much rugged fact, defying all imaginative effort to romanticize it into sheer ideality, so much narrative established in the mouths of many witnesses, that those who aimed to idealize the man clear over into pure spirit could not have their victory. Well is it that the Church did not follow the lead of that ultra-Pauline element which for so long in the movement sought to exalt the impersonal Christos and to ignore the Galilean mechanic whom Paul had not known in the flesh. Sober moral common sense led the body of the movement to fall back rather on the Petrine reminiscences of the sayings and doings of Jesus the man.

One has to wonder whether the eminent and learned writers of this and similar material--to be found in endless profusion in Christian apologetic literature--have ever paused long enough in their laudable zeal to vindicate the Christian record to reflect upon the implications and commitments of their position thus stated. As a matter of simple fact these grandiose assertions to the effect that Christianity was fortunate to escape the Pauline influence come close to being a blank confession that Christianity has never been a wholly spiritual religion, and from the third century was not capable of absorbing and assimilating the completely spiritual message and import of the true Gospel! The realization has never seemed to dawn upon orthodox defenders of the faith once delivered to the saints that to proclaim its good fortune in escaping Paul’s thoroughgoing preachment of the indwelling spirit of God is practically the equivalent of proclaiming Christianity to be a system that refuses to go the whole way in the direction of inner spiritual illumination. The inference of good fortune in escaping a certain element implies the presence of evil in that element. If the Church is proclaimed fortunate in having escaped Paul’s spiritual systematism, the plain deduction from the syllogism is that Paul’s high spirituality was and is a dangerous and evil thing. Yet a million sermons have taken Paul’s beautiful runes and rhapsodies of the spiritual life and gone on to magnify and extol their sanctifying power in the Christian experience. If this is the benign thing that Christianity escaped (and it is our assertion that this beauteous influence is just the thing it did lose), how in the name of all that is reasonable can a religion be declared fortunate in escaping the highest blessedness of spiritual exaltation? If Paul’s ethereal afflatus, his lofty flights on the wings of beatific realization of the presence of God in the soul, are things of danger to be sedulously escaped, it is imperative, then, that the Christian system turn to repudiate Augustine, Thomas à Kempis, Bonaventura, St. Francis and its thousands of idolized saints and enchanted mystics, whom it has persisted in holding up as heroes of the sacred life. In striking, however glancingly, at Paul and his contribution to their movement, the exegetists are shouting aloud the ultimate spiritual deficiency of their own cult. Their attitude represents mental insincerity, if not open duplicity, inasmuch as the condemnation of Paul’s exalted communion with inner deity clashes diametrically with a stupendous volume of experience on the part of Christian devotees from Augustine to Rufus Jones as to the supreme excellence of the Gnostic pathway to the vision of divine light. In the face of this enormous volume of most highly acclaimed and venerated mysticism of Christian votaries, which, if anything, outdoes even Paul in pure rapture--since Paul never relaxes his hold on rational elements, and the Christian mystics often do--it is surely disingenuous for theologians to decry the Pauline influence or hold it up as a potential peril happily escaped.

And if the Church was fortunate to escape the fate of being ridden with the highest and sanest type of rational mysticism perhaps ever to be introduced into religion, its good fortune did not continue longer than the fourth century. For Augustine straightway fell into exalted ecstasies more unrestrained than any Paul expressed. And a whole catalogue of saints and ascetics since then have followed the same path to what they reported to be the acme of inner blessedness. Not even the Hindu Yogi has surpassed the line of Christian revelers in transcendental enchantments. When the holy saints and nuns of medieval and modern Christianity have fallen into such white-hot rapture of identity with the suffering Jesus of Passion Week that the replicas of his wounds opened and bled on their very bodies, and all this (and much else) has been held in awesome regard by the Christian body in general, it comes close to downright insincerity for scholars to denounce Paul’s lofty rational spirituality as not genuine Christianity.

It is time that someone called attention to the glaring inconsistency of this position. That which has been exalted as the noblest and highest strain in Christianity over the centuries is precisely the attainment of inner rapport between the individual soul and the God consciousness, and this is the Pauline influence that we have seen denounced as a peril. If Paul’s emphasis on this experience was a life-and-death danger to Christianity, then it was not fortunate to escape it, for it never did escape it! Not only did it adopt it--on one side of its life at least--but it became the religion’s brightest crown! If that influence spelled catastrophe, then the religion has suffered vast catastrophe, for that influence is exactly what it exalted to the highest. It is surely strange that the very element which these critics pronounce the gravest danger that Christianity escaped has never been seen as calamity, but is on all sides held to be Christianity’s truest expression. And again can be seen how decisively historic fact gives the lie to an ingrained facet of stereotyped ecclesiastical pietism.

Bacon confesses that it would have been fatal if Christianity had gone the whole way with Paul into the inner realization of divine presence and communion. This is to say by inference that it was all right to go a little way into realization of inner divine values, but not to go into it with whole-hearted intensity. It must be granted that moderation in all things is commendable, indeed is the sum of most virtue. And no one goes beyond us in decrying the dangerous tendencies and extravagances that so often engulf the unwise or unbalanced dabbler in the mystic ocean. There is here full and even hearty accord with those who press that side of the case. But still it is the height of anomaly to assume that any true goal of human aspiration is to be striven for only half way. No goal of real worth will be reached without consummate care and balance at every stage of approach. That is understood in any effort at perfection.

Bacon holds that it would have been a calamity if the real historical Jesus had been eclipsed behind the glories of apocalyptic vision. Then Christianity is headed for calamity, for its confessed and approved aim is eventually to eclipse any outward value or nucleus of value behind supreme inner realizations. If this is not so, a thousand Christian books and ten million Christian sermons have been a resounding lie. The pro-Jesus argument is a bubble that bursts and vanishes under the touch of the final consideration in all religious experience, that no Savior external to man’s own mind and heart can avail to help any mortal win his immortal crown unless and until that mortal has incorporated into his own nature the mind and self of the Christ spirit. No Christ outside can transfigure a mortal until the mortal feeds on that body of divine essence, transubstantiates his own being with it, becomes transfigured by the ineffable infusion of a higher consciousness and ends by being changed in a moment into the likeness of a divine soul. Be there a thousand holy Messiahs in body on earth, they would not alter the conditions of the individual’s apotheosis one whit. The eclipse of an alleged personal Jesus behind individual spiritual attainment and a true estimate of the relatively minor importance of a personal Avatar, could not be fatal to Christianity or any religion, because in the end, with evolution the judge and jury, any historical "Jesus" must be eclipsed behind a real divine achievement in consciousness. If this is not true, all religious or ethical exhortation for the spiritual purification of the life is waste and impertinence. On the other hand, the eclipse of the Pauline emphasis on the life of spiritual realization, irrespective or regardless of the solid fact of Jesus’ personal career, could and did become a terrible handicap to the promulgation of the only true Christianity worthy of the name--that Christianity which builds the Christ mind and heart into the ranks of humanity.

By what species of clairvoyance Bacon and his fellow apologists profess to see more terrible consequences flow from centuries of Christian effort to incorporate divine graciousness into the European and American consciousness than have accrued to history from that same amount of effort to commemorate a solidly real Jesus, we do not pretend to know. A myriad of the grossest forms of man’s inhumanity to man, fifty millions of people, historians estimate, murdered by Christian bigotry and hatred, religious wars of frightful proportions, persecutions, intercreedal antagonisms, hopeless division and hostility, the total suppression of free thought and free inquiry, of scientific investigation and search for truth for ten to twelve centuries--all this is but a suggestion of the record of that same Christianity which drew its motivations from the (alleged) solid fact of Jesus’ existence. Surely the challenge can be flung down to the theologians to tell us on what sound knowledge they dare to assert that the record of their religion would have been still far more terrible if the millions of devoted followers had been actuated by the esoteric motive of trying to incorporate as much of the Christ mind within the area of their own lives as Paul would have taught them to do. If the Church’s dodge from Paul’s rational mysticism back to the exoteric factuality of Petrine doctrine saved it, it saved it for a record of brutal and conscienceless inhumanity that would utterly discredit any other organization on earth. Every rational assumption in the situation gives us the right to assert that had it held to Paul instead of turning to Peter, it might have been saved from the horrible record it has made in being saved from the still more horrible record it would have made--as claimed--if it had not been saved to make the horrible record it did make! Crazy as this sounds, it is exactly where the logic of this conventional line of theological reasoning leads us. It robbed Paul to pay Peter; far better had it been to rob Peter to pay Paul. And the Peter’s pence it has paid have not bought it remission of any of its sins against the glimmering of the esoteric light of spiritual truth in many corners here and there in Europe in the intervening centuries, light which it has with fell fury rushed to black out as soon and often as it appeared. For from the days its ignorant masses elevated the Petrine doctrine in triumph over the Pauline esotericism to this present, it has been crucifying not only the spirit of Paul but the heart and soul of the true Christ in humanity. And this is the institution and the creed that Bacon defends. The real historical verdict after sixteen centuries is that it was a calamity that the solid ground of plain hard fact of Jesus’ personal existence did not disappear behind the living reality of inner grace.

Had the personal Jesus disappeared, as Bacon laments the possibility of its having done, we would have had left nothing more substantial than the mythical heroes of the Mysteries and a vague general idea of a god somehow dwelling within us, is the claim. But our early chapters have dealt with this point. Since the work of saving grace must be consummated eventually by each individual for himself, and a model or paragon was provided by ancient sage wisdom in the form of the Messianic Sun-God figures in the Mystery dramatic rituals, man’s only inspiration toward the task of his salvation is the knowledge that the excellence of the model can be achieved by him in time. A living exemplar can do no more. And since he can not, all the claims that a historical Jesus is the only solid basis for the one true dynamic religion fall out as untrue.

All the writers in the strain that Bacon labors to express lay great stress on the fact that the hard plain data of Jesus’ actual career are the only solid or substantial elements to which a religious faith can attach itself and feel under its feet the firm ground of certitude from which dynamic fortitude can be drawn. But we have particularized the item that if this is the one rock to which we can safely moor our bark, it is by the very fact of its "onliness" most unsafe and insecure after all. If Jesus alone attained, our victory is far off. As a matter of truth, there is no safe ground for humanity to stand upon in religion save the rock of divine instinct in the inner self. If, as said, this is insecure, no historical man is of avail to save the individual. The sad effect of teaching the masses to look outward for their salvation to a historical person is seen in the helpless bewilderment and resourcelessness of people today when they are suddenly told for the first time that their only God is the Christ within their own souls. They are filled with dismay, they are overwhelmed with desolation, and they turn and cry: "They have taken away my Savior--on whom shall I lean now?" They have so little cultivated the acquaintance of their inner divine guest that they have certitude neither of his presence nor of his competence to save them. Through dearth or desuetude of the doctrine and practice of the immanence of God, millions today stand trembling in helpless terror when this challenge leads to the sudden revelation of their own inner poverty. When they are told they have nothing more substantial to count upon than their feebly-glowing spark of divinity--all drowned in the welter of human loves and hates, greeds and cruelties--their situation appears to them hopeless indeed. No wonder they find consolation and safety when the sanctified priest assures them that the personal Jesus will look benignly upon them and be their vicarious benefactor.

Paul, Bacon agrees, had not known the Galilean mechanic in the flesh. He had apparently never heard of him and writes nothing of him. Yet this bereavement and deprivation did not prevent him from being the actual founder of the true Christianity and possibly its foremost expounder and teacher. The spiritual model of the Mystery drama was quite as dynamic an inspiration as ever was needed to lift a man to near-divine intelligence and holiness. Paul’s own life and writing put out of court the arguments of his unworthy successors in the great religion he promulgated. Paul himself disproves that the existence of a living Jesus is a necessary element in the psychology of Christly attainment. He attained without knowledge of a personal Savior, as did, shall we say, Plato and Socrates long before him.

There is nothing in the whole of the illogical position upheld by Bacon in this passage that would not be readily corrected by a proper study of comparative religion, with especial reference to the Egyptian sources of all Bible material. But the idiosyncrasies of the argument can not be seen until such study has been made in considerable volume and with proper insights, as well as freedom from established biases. The entire body of supposititious data on which criticism and judgments have so far been based must be drastically altered, and a new foundation for both criticism and interpretation formulated, on the basis of the inclusion of later and sounder Egyptian studies in comparative religion. The perennial weakness of the Christian essay to evaluate its own scriptures has been the delimitation of the scope of its survey to the too narrow bounds of the Christian movement alone. Contempt of "pagan" influences has kept Christian perspective focused on the narrow study of a body of literature that has been believed capable of standing alone and revealing its meaning without reference to its relation to antecedent and environing connections. The truth is that the total of its form, nature and meaning is so closely intertwined with these antecedent elements that without them the study can proceed only in dense darkness. The sun of truth that is needed to throw light into the dark recesses of the mystery, confusion and unintelligibility of the Christian exegetical problem is that luminary of wisdom that shone of old in Egypt, but that was eclipsed by the uprush of popularized Christianity and buried until the Rosetta Stone opened the long-sealed door to let the light shine forth once again. Only with that torch in hand will the scholars have the light to see both their former erroneous methods and the true nature of the problem.