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St Peter and St Paul Resolve a Problem

June 30, 2012 Length: 10:37

Fr. Dn. Christopher speaks on the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul.

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It is very fashionable in heterodox theology to see tensions between Scripture and Tradition, or between Jewish and Greek elements in the early Church, and it tends to use various “evidence” to try and support this position. Our answer rests with Tradition, the working of the Holy Spirit in the Church. One example we might consider is the alleged tension between St Paul and St Peter.

They were very different men. (This is no surprise since God uses all sorts of people and their gifts.) One was a fisherman by trade, at least until the Lord called him to follow. The other was an intellectual who studied under some of the best minds of his day. We know Paul of Tarsus was a pupil of Gamaliel, one of the chief Jewish Rabbis. He was a prolific author, with a vast swathe of the New Testament writings in his name. Peter, by contrast wrote little, but he was very much a leader. In today’s Gospel we hear why when our Lord asked him to say who He was.

“Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

“The rock here is not Peter as the foundation of the Church and its ruler but rather his faith that Christ is the Messiah, the Son of the living God.

Both sinned; St Peter famously by his denial at the time of the trial of Christ, St Paul as an active persecutor of the Church. They are revered in our Patriarchate of Antioch as our co-patrons. This is mainly of course because they were both active in Antioch, which records St Peter as its first bishop. It was in Antioch the term Christian was first used.

I now want to examine one series of events Antioch which involved the transfer of the focus of the Church’s mission to the plan of God for the entire world. Without this move Christianity would have perhaps become a local Jewish sect. Matters were formally resolved at the Council of Jerusalem as recorded in Acts 15. However it was in Antioch that matters came to a head. We read of these events in both Acts and in St Paul’s epistle to the Galatians (Chapter 2). St Paul writes that he reproved St Peter to his face for apparently being so fearful of the Judaisers. In Acts 10 we read that Peter had a vision; which lead to his abandoning the old distinction between clean and unclean foods, representing of course the distinction between Jew and Gentile. This was ratified by the Apostles in Jerusalem (Acts 15).

The point of this conflict is now revealed. St. Paul had travelled via Antioch and returned. At that time certain people had come to Antioch insisting on the need for circumcision. St. Peter had seniority amongst the Apostles and he was the one who had the vision which meant the end of the dietary restrictions. So it might seem odd he now appeases those demanding circumcision. Yet this happens. St John Chrysostom refers to this matter in his commentary on Galatians, where he concludes that Peter, in order not to scandalise the brethren had quietly withdrawn from fellowship with the “gentile” element in Antioch.

This is a key conclusion of St John Chrysostom concerning this matter:

“The Apostles, as I said before, permitted circumcision at Jerusalem, an abrupt severance from the law not being practicable; but when they come to Antioch, they no longer continued this observance, but lived indiscriminately with the believing Gentiles which thing Peter also was at that time doing. But when some came from Jerusalem who had heard the doctrine he delivered there, he no longer did so fearing to perplex them, but he changed his course, with two objects secretly in view, both to avoid offending those Jews, and to give Paul a reasonable pretext for rebuking him. For had he, having allowed circumcision when preaching at Jerusalem, changed his course at Antioch, his conduct would have appeared to those Jews to proceed from fear of Paul, and his disciples would have condemned his excess of pliancy. And this would have created no small offence; but in Paul, who was well acquainted with all the facts, his withdrawal would have raised no such suspicion, as knowing the intention with which he acted. Wherefore Paul rebukes, and Peter submits, that when the master is blamed, yet keeps silence, the disciples may more readily come over.

Without this occurrence Paul’s exhortation would have had little effect, but the occasion hereby afforded of delivering a severe reproof, impressed Peter’s disciples with a more lively fear. Had Peter disputed Paul’s sentence, he might justly have been blamed as upsetting the plan, but now that the one reproves and the other keeps silence, the Jewish party are filled with serious alarm; and this is why he used Peter so severely. Observe too Paul’s careful choice of expressions, whereby he points out to the discerning, that he uses them in pursuance of the plan, and not from anger.”

In short, Peter worked with Paul in solving what could have been a serious breach of the Church’s unity. As it was Peter who had validated Paul’s Apostleship, the matter got a hearing and the promoters of circumcision were “let off the hook”. Peter got the public blame and no one had cause to feel resentment. I suggest St John Chrysostom is right. This is an example of two people working together to restore harmony in the Church and avoid schism, without letting their egos get in the way. It was a delight for me to find out that Church Tradition, as illuminated by St John Chrysostom, had confounded most clearly incoherent ideas that in our own day have been put forward by other traditions about these two saints.

Paul and Peter had indeed together solved a problem; although to this day it is sometimes seen by others outside the Tradition of the Church as if Peter were cowardly before the onslaught of Judaisers and Paul was arrogant in tackling a senior Apostle! As we have seen, the matter was formally resolved by a council in Jerusalem. The letter they sent out is preserved in Acts 15. The phrase they used, having declared themselves of one mind, was: “It seemed good to us and the Holy Spirit…” This illustrates the nature of the Church beautifully.

Holy Peter and Paul pray to God for us and especially that the Spirit of God continues to guide us all!


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