Krister Stendahl’s classic 1963 essay, “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West” makes the case that Augustine and the Western (Protestant) Christian tradition, preoccupied as they were and are with personal human guilt, present us with a drastic misreading of Paul. Unlike his fourth-century reader who poured out confessions of sin and misery to God, Paul was relatively untroubled by a sense of personal failure. According to Stendahl, himself an ordained Lutheran clergyman, Paul was very different from Augustine and Luther insofar as Paul possessed a “robust conscience.”
When Paul looked back over his life prior to his conversion to faith in Jesus, Stendahl argued, he considered himself a successful keeper of the Jewish law. Where Augustine and Luther narrated their respective conversions as a transition from oppressive feelings of condemnation to the relief of forgiveness and justification, Paul presents a very different picture: “as to righteousness, under the law [I was] blameless” before I became a Christian, he says (Phil. 3:6).
In drawing this distinction between Paul and Augustine, Stendahl is not simply interested in making a point about the distant past. He suggests, rather, that Paul’s freedom from feelings of guilt may have something to teach us about our contemporary Christian experience. Paul’s witness may enable us to break free from an oppressive Augustinian preoccupation with human unworthiness. “Did Paul think the only way to become a good Christian was out of frustration and guilt?” Stendahl asks (in the book in which the “Introspective Conscience” essay was eventually collected). No, he answers. “It may be that the axis of sin and guilt is not the only axis on which Christianity revolves.”
Another Lutheran clergyman—the theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer—may offer the best rebuttal to Stendahl’s view of Paul. In his Letters and Papers from Prison, Bonhoeffer worries that some versions of Christian apologetics and evangelism elide the distinction between sin and feeling guilty. As theologian Ian McFarland put it in his excellent book In Adam’s Fall:
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was highly critical of those styles of evangelistic preaching that seek first to persuade people how wretched and miserable they are and only then introduce Jesus Christ as the cure for their condition. He called it ‘religious blackmail’ and thought it both ignoble and completely inconsistent with Jesus’ own preaching. . . . Bonhoeffer objected that such preaching confused sin with personal weakness or guilt.
Better, Bonhoeffer argued, to present the total claim of Jesus Christ on a person’s whole life, rather than attempting to root out—in the fashion of muckraking journalism—a person’s hidden insecurities as a prelude to introducing them to Jesus’ forgiveness. At first glance, this makes it sound as though Bonhoeffer were agreeing with Stendahl that we have to break free of the old notions of personal sin and guilt if we’re to preach Christ in the changed landscape of modernity. But a closer read suggests there’s a deeper logic at work here.
Bonhoeffer suggests, contra Stendahl, that if we’re really to preach about the sin of humanity, we have to avoid yoking that preaching too closely to the feelings of guilt that may or may not be a feature of our hearers’ experience. Regardless of what a person may feel, Bonhoeffer implies, the gospel truly addresses them and lays claim to their lives. The truths of sin and redemption aren’t dependent on the rising and falling of human emotional states. And to dismantle a faulty view of the importance of those emotional states isn’t equivalent to a wholesale revision of Christian teaching on sin and redemption.
There’s an important lesson here, and not only for Pauline scholars (who, by the way, may agree with Stendahl that Paul possessed a robust conscience prior to faith in Christ but may nonetheless disagree with Stendahl about the implications of that fact). Distinguishing between the objective condition of humanity under sin and divine judgment (see Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapters 1-3) and the subjective feelings of guilt and shame may allow us better to defend, say, a Christian account of marriage in the public square.
Too often we Christians are heard as saying something along the following lines: “Your life of casual sex (or cohabitation, or homosexuality) surely must be leading you to feel empty, unfulfilled, and jaded. But we have the solution for those unpleasant feelings!” To which the reply is often: “I’m sorry to disappoint, but I don’t feel excessively guilty or ashamed or unfulfilled. On the contrary, my gay partnership has given me more emotional peace than I’ve ever had.”
In other words, we Christians are often found making Stendahl’s mistake: in our rush to defend our understanding of sin and human flourishing, we too easily assume that the same emotions must be the universal human result of certain behavioral choices. When those expected emotions aren’t present—when Paul, for instance, feels no guilt after persecuting the early Christians—we’re suddenly left wondering what went wrong with our doctrine of sin.
I submit that Bonhoeffer may provide us with a way out of this conundrum. Avoiding what he calls “an attack on the adulthood of the world,” we may realize that it isn’t part of our Christian calling to first expose (or conjure) guilty feelings before we commend, say, a traditional Christian vision of marriage. Rather, we can simply acknowledge that human emotions are unpredictable; “peace” and “fulfillment” may indeed be the outcome of practices and behaviors that, from a Christian vantage point, we must deem sinful. But no matter. The gospel lays claim to the whole human being in the midst of that “peace.” Here in Advent, we remember the One who told us he did not come to bring peace (Matt. 10:34). He came to demand our all—to ask for our death and our life. No matter how robust our consciences may be, he came to save us all.
Wesley Hill is assistant professor of biblical studies at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania. His book Paul and the Triune Identity is forthcoming from Eerdmans.