Thursday, March 12, 2009

St. Paul the Apostle in the Catholic Church

Someone asked me to clarify St. Paul's role in Catholicism and how he fits into their ecclesiology. One argument I tried to use as a Protestant was that Paul wasn't 'authorized' by the Church and yet he was an apostle, and so our churches though not 'authorized' by the descendants of the apostles (bishops in apostolic succession in communion with the bishop of Rome) we were still a valid church.

Here's an honest look at the situation. I've dealt with Galatians 2 before and Paul's confrontation of Peter and defended the Catholic view that St. Peter had fallen into sin but not false teaching: , and likewise I used Pope Benedict's biblical defense of Petrine Supremacy among the apostles to reaffirm the traditional view of Peter as prince of the apostles or first among them here:

So with those two issues out of the way, what about Paul for example in Galatians 1:1 saying "Paul an apostle—sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ "

There is infallible proof aha! some will say. Furthermore Paul writes: "I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus. Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him for fifteen days; but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother." But let me note a few things:

1. Paul had indeed met with Ananias and other Christians and eventually went to Peter and James and the Church in Jerusalem, so he wasn't completely alone.

2. Paul was 'merely' preaching his gospel, he didn't have any authorization from the Church that his calling from Christ was indeed true at that point, but we know from later verification by the rest of the Church that it was true, so it didn't end up mattering, there was no dicotemy between Paul and the other apostles' messages.

3. Paul was an apostle. He was appointed by Christ as an apostle, just as John and James had been. So Paul shared the same calling they had. The Catholic Church teaches that it has no authority except that which Christ gives her, and that though she is limited to the sacraments, God is not. Therefore, from a Catholic perspective, even if St. Paul didn't lack any authority, he had authority from God himself. He continually notes that "For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you" (1 Cor 11:23).

4. Look what he says later in Galatians 2:1-2 "I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me. I went up in response to a revelation. Then I laid before them (though only in a private meeting with the acknowledged leaders) the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure that I was not running, or had not run, in vain." So actually if Paul was trying to empasize earlier that he didn't get any endorsement from the Church but he's an apostle, then why would he write this.

It must mean that he wasn't trying to convince the Judaizers in Galatia that he was authentically from the Church in Jerusalem, but rather authentically from Christ. This makes much more sense as a hermeneutic for Galatians 1-2 in my opinion.

In short, St. Paul is one of the most important figures in all of salvation history and the Church of Rome was traditionally called "the Church of Ss. Peter and Paul". As well it is the year of St. Paul in the Catholic Church. And to close with St. Paul's own words:

"I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions just as I handed them on to you. " - 1 Corinthians 11:2


  1. Thanks for the clarification Andrew. I was simply asking out of curiosity. We're preaching through Galatians right now and the thought crossed my mind as I was reading through your blog posting.

    Of course Paul would have felt as if he was running his race in vain if he was teaching Christ's sufficiency apart from the OT Law and Peter and the church in Jerusalem were teaching (or at least modeling) something different. His point in retelling his confrontation of Peter was to say that Peter was in error and recognized it and there is no disagreement between them on this matter.

  2. By the way it's pretty scary to preach in galatians when we have one of the top protestant experts on Pauline epistles at our church. His name is Stephen Westerholm and he teaches at McMaster University. Here's one of his articles:

  3. Ya sorry Derik if I appear defensive lol it just seems like a rarity to have someone not telling me I'm an unsaved heretic, so I get a little edgy. Good luck with the Galatians series, it's an amazing book, so much to discuss from justification to the relation between law and gospel (or law of moses vs law of Christ), marriage, fruits of the spirit, etc.

    I'll have to check out Westerholm's blog. I'll probably end up in Mac divinity so I should get to know his stuff.

    Thanks Derik.

  4. I understand Andrew, but you should know me better than that :). Although I would find myself solidly within the warm cozy confines of reformed theology I also do believe that salvation lies not through belief in Luther or Calvin but in Jesus Christ. I expect to see many, to borrow a Catholic phrase "separated brethren" in Heaven. You just might arrive there a little later since I'm not planning on making a stopover in purgatory ;).

    I'm sure I'll be amazed on the other side about how much I got wrong, but I trust that the same Spirit of truth is guiding us both in our quest to know God better.