St. Paul, Vatican II, and the Puzzle of the Cross

Updated: Aug 6, 2021

The apostle Paul was aware that a major puzzle was still left to be solved by him and his fellow apostles. How can the God of Israel be shown to be faithful to his covenant when the crucifixion of Israel's messiah appears to be a point of rupture with the past? Everyone, Paul supposed, expected things to be different. Having read these texts since his boyhood, even Paul's mentors, his favorite scholars, his everyday conversations, all led him to believe that this—the death of Israel's messiah by crucifixion—was not what anyone had expected.

This is not entirely unlike what many are going through today. How, given what has happened in the Church in the United States in the last fifty years, can the Second Vatican Council be a moment of continuity rather than rupture?

Paul had two options. He could have given up entirely on any hermeneutic of continuity. None of this seems to make sense, in other words, the death of Jesus just doesn't fit with how we've all been reading the story. But there was a second option that Paul, for several reasons we can't explore here, decided to take instead: Israel's messiah, specifically through His death and resurrection, has inaugurated a new age, through which God's covenant people, scattered throughout the world, will be brought into the one covenant family of Abraham.

When we read Paul's letters, we quickly discover that he spent the rest of his life spelling out exactly how this was the case, how the puzzle of Israel's plight is solved in the paschal mystery of Jesus of Nazareth. The story from Genesis to Revelation, at the heart of which is the crucifixion of Israel's messiah, was one unified story. There he was, with all the freedom in the world, to choose which hermeneutic to work with, to apply to the script, to use to understand, or leave unsolved, the mystery of Christ's death on the cross. There were many moments, to be sure, when Paul scratched his head as he worked out a detailed exegesis of Deuteronomy 30-32, when he stroked his chin as he resolved to makes sense of Daniel 7-9, when he knew that, given the words of Jesus on that first frightening encounter on the road to Damascus, the Church really was the family of Abraham according to the promises of Genesis 12, 15, 17 and 22.

Jesus appears to Paul and commissions him, it seems, in part, to work out for the Church how that tension is released. How it is, given what many had taken to be an unsolvable problem, that the puzzle put forth in Jesus' death can be reworked and cleared up in light of Deuteronomy 32 and Daniel 9 and Isaiah, as well as many, many other passages and prophets from the Old Testament. He is aware of the tension and begins from beneath the cross of Christ, to work towards a solution as to how this is all had to take place in the way that it did. He knows Christ is Lord, because he saw him and spoke with him. Jesus appeared to Him, to send him on a specific mission of applying the hermeneutic of continuity to the cross! Now he goes to work to solve that seemingly unsolvable puzzle, working from the outer edges of the story (Rom 5:12-14) to its tiniest bits (Gal 3:16).

But it was not always head scratches and several long pauses before speaking; rather, precisely through thinking deeply about the line of continuity running from Genesis 3 through 12, straight on through Exodus and the prophets, and finally through 2 Samuel 7 and Jesus' resurrection on the third day, Paul was able to discover the true power of the Gospel. And thus, with that very same discovery, he was able to make known, with no pauses whatsoever, now only long letters of jubilation, the true meaning of the cross as having taken place "according to the scriptures".

Look, says Paul, "I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures" (1 Cor 15:3). Thus, Paul goes on in Romans and Galatians, to both Corinthian and the Ephesian alike, to reveal to the churches exactly how this "according to the scriptures" might actually works itself out. (paraphrasing):

It clearly took me a bit of time, but I think I've finally figured it all out. In other words, it wasn't at all the case that the Law was bad; no, in fact, it is good! But only for those who keep the law. And, you see, none of "us" keep the law. But by "us" I mean all humanity, Jew and Gentile. But the Law was given to expose the true depth of our slavery. But by "slavery" I don't mean Pharaoh, you see, not the kind of slavery our ancestors experienced in Egypt, but the true slavery of sin that was revealed in the wilderness of Sinai, the slavery that I myself am under so long as I have not Christ. It's clear that Moses told us about this slavery, just go back and reread, slowly, Deuteronomy 32. See, Christ is the New Exodus, the new freedom from the deeper slavery. Sin is not merely an inability to keep the Law—although it is that—but a real and cosmic force that is keeping us all oppressed (like those gods our ancestors sacrificed to in verse 17, which were really demons). The Law was unable to solve this problem, and in fact, the Law was being used by this dark power to keep us in its grip. But Jesus used the Law as the means by which he would destroy this power, by placing the judgement on Satan himself and, through Jesus' resurrection, condemned sin in the flesh of Christ. That's at least how I've worked it all out, says Paul.

That is not unlike the task we have today. We know the Church cannot error, but some are pointing to a tension in the script of the story. This doesn’t make sense, many are saying. I’m just not seeing the continuity, they say. And, like those in Paul's own day, many today are going out of their way to convince us that the Church, in the form of the Second Vatican Council as well as other ordinary magisterial teachings, has deviated from the Faith.

Rather than spend the rest of this article working out how I myself have made sense of the continuity, I would rather encourage those of us in Los Angeles to pray deeply about Paul's own life as a theologian. Unlike many of us who play theologian for fun, Paul was a theologian out of necessity. He truly saw the risen Lord and had no other option. He had nowhere else to turn than to the Cross, where, from underneath (as well as fixed upon), he would look back on those sacred texts, those same ones he had memorized as a boy and used against the Church, to work out a solution to the puzzle of continuity.

We do well to remember that Paul did not go around the texts, but rather through them and out the other end. It was through the texts of scripture, wrestling with them, meditating on them, praying and crying over them, that Paul found the power of the gospel that he had been looking for all along. Yes, he had to look back on his own people's history, and what he saw was not what he had hoped (the prophets made sure of that). But he knew that, given the reworking of Israel plight, he was better able to see why it was not just true but timely for God to have done what He did in the way that He did it.

The Second Vatican Council was given to us by God. If God is allowing a bit of trouble in the waters, it is only because He wants us to rediscover that gift, to go back to the conciliar texts themselves to find hope for the present. As well as the future.

Finally, there were no doubt that many, I’m sure, positioning themselves as Paul’s rivals, grasping for attention from the same audience he was gathering, fought to tell their version of the story, how to apply their own hermeneutic of rupture. Paul was well-aware of these men because he was once one of them. But Paul simply put his head down, ignoring as many as he could, and those he couldn't he approached privately, few publicly, but all of them by prayer, and, working tirelessly, he printed his books and published his letters, hosted his own seminars, and welcomed as many speaking engagements as he could, insisting again and again and again that his hermeneutic actually works. And, in fact, when read in this way and from this angle, not only are the texts safe and the story straight, but, as it turns out, this was the solution to the problem all along.

One can imagine that Paul’s opponents were also part of God’s plan, that is, to force Paul to think longer and harder and deeper about how the story works, and how, given the problem Israel and the world had faced up to that point, Jesus truly was and is Israel’s long-awaited messiah.

St. John Paul II was right that to oppose the Second Vatican Council is to oppose the Holy Spirit. But each new generation is challenged with the task of thinking long and hard and deep about how the story works, about how the Second Vatican Council really is the solution to the problems

we still face today.

Jesus and Mary, be with us on the way


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