Peter vs. Paul: Agree to disagree?

Seeing the Word: Part 3.

In Chapter 4, Bockmuehl explores the assumption in much of New Testament scholarship (since F. C. Baur) that there existed in the first century a deep rift between the law-free mission of Paul — “justification by faith alone” — and the Judaizing mission led by Peter, James and others in the Jerusalem church. In Galatians 2, some scholars argue, this theological disagreement is clearly demonstrated with Paul’s retelling of his feud with Peter at Antioch over the nature of Christian faith and the Gentile mission.

F.C. Baur (and his students) argued that Jesus preached/lived two contradictory conceptual worlds: universal morality and Jewish-messianic nationalism. Jesus’ followers then attached themselves to one of these two worlds. This factionalism, for Baur, is seen at Antioch and at Corinth – i.e. the Cephas party and the Paul party. It is a common refrain, but one worth repeating, that Baur’s view of early Christian history was deeply influenced by the Hegelian dialectic: thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. In this vein, Baur saw early Christian history as a struggle between the poles of the Gentile mission and the Judaizing mission. This struggle (thesis – antithesis) eventually gave birth to early catholicism: the inevitable synthesis of the tensions in the earliest Christian communities. This synthesis is represented in the book of Acts, which Baur dates conveniently to the mid 2nd century. In Acts, the tension between the two poles are watered down — Paul is made to look like Peter and Peter like Paul, the situation at Antioch is glossed over, and the church is unified in its mission. For Baur and some contemporary scholars, Acts does not represent history as much as it is just wishful thinking.

And so we come to our icon above. For the historical-critical school, which Baur represents, this icon of Peter and Paul would have no basis in reality. Are they correct? Criticisms of Baur’s reconstruction of early Christian history have been leveled frequently and (many would say) accurately over the past 100 years, and yet his influence still lingers. Do Baur and his sympathizers have insight into the first 50-100 years of the church that everyone before them missed? In the early church, it was only the Marcionites and the Ebionites who stressed the conflict between Paul and Peter. The early church actually took for granted that Peter and Paul were apostles of the same Christ to different people. It is this assumption which produced images like the icon above.

Although some scholars today stress this apparent gap between history and theology, careful reading of the New Testament and analysis of early Christian history effectively demonstrate the fact that the historical situation and the theological articulation of first several centuries is basically one and the same. The point of this piece is not to rehearse the details of that analysis (as important as it is) but to look at the conclusion that some scholars like Bockmuehl reach in this matter. In distinction from Baur and his constituents, Bockmuehl rejects the idea that the disagreement between Paul and Peter represented an irreconcilable disunity in the early church. He writes,

Against the inherent volatility of this construal of their relationship, it may be that the uneasy unity of Peter and Paul simply reveals the extent to which the life and health of the church has always, at its worst no less than at its best, depended on the creative negotiation of precisely that same tension between charismatic and episcopal polity. To dismiss one in favor of the other is always to court either the tyranny of convention or the tyranny of revolution. (133)

Bockmuehl writes about the tension between Peter and Paul at Antioch as if their argument resulted in a sort of negotiation – agree to disagree. The picture he paints is that although Peter and Paul are fundamentally in agreement regarding their belief in the gospel of Jesus, they are, nonetheless, in fundamental disagreement with regard to their understanding of the ecclesial outworking of that belief. Is the situation at Antioch an example of “unity in diversity” or of an apostle in sin? In Galatians it seems that the thrust of the story is not just that Paul disagrees with Peter, but that he thinks Peter is wrong: “I opposed [Peter] to his face, because he stood condemned.” Did Peter go away from the event perturbed because of minor points of disagreement, or did he go away in repentance?

If I understand Bockmuehl correctly, it seems that his reading of the relationship of Peter and Paul in the New Testament still goes against the grain of the text and the early church fathers. I do not think that we have to be so naive as to think that Peter and Paul were unified in every detail or even that Paul articulated every detail of the gospel precisely in the same manner as the Jerusalem church (although I would insist that the content of the gospel was the same). But can we conclude that the disagreement at Antioch was just that, a disagreement? Or was Peter fundamentally mistaken in the way lived out the implications of the gospel in that particular instance?

We really have two questions here. The first (micro question) is about Peter and Paul in Galatians 2. As I (and others) read the text, it seems that Peter was wrong. The second (macro question) is this: just how much disagreement existed in the first 50 years of the church? Even if we can conclude that the Gentile church and the Jewish church were basically in agreement on the most important issues of “the faith,” we still need to ask what (if any) areas of disagreement existed beyond this. And what difference would it make? This is a difficult and complex issue, and I don’t have the space to attempt an answer here (and I’m sure others can answer it better than I). My hope is that this will leave you asking questions like what does the New Testament actually say? what do the early church fathers say? and on what basis can we claim that there was disagreement?




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