Fr. Dale Matson
Christ is the prototype of the perfect human and I would say that St. Paul is the prototype of the converted and sanctified human. As a psychologist with a background in developmental psychology, the domain of spiritual development is of particular interest because I am a priest.
Sanctification is the process of spiritual development following conversion. Most would agree that Paul had a powerful conversion experience as reported by St. Luke in Acts chapter nine. Paul was on his way to Damascus to arrest followers of the Way and was knocked off his horse. There he encountered the resurrected Christ.
Paul, though he was converted, was not fully formed. Christ is revealed by St. Paul more than any other New Testament author and in so doing; Paul revealed much about himself also. While he focused on revealing the mysteries of Christ, he also provided a longitudinal record of his own spiritual development lasting about 30 years.
Just as the Synoptic Gospels and St. John’s Gospel give us a differing perspective on the portrait of Christ, St Paul gives us a differing perspectives on Christ in his early, middle and later writings. This is not to say that any period of St. Paul is less inspired than the others.
The model of spiritual development that has been traditionally employed by the church consists of the Purgative, Illuminative and Unitive stages. For an expanded explanation of these stages, please refer to my previous posting on Soundings. http://sanjoaquinsoundings.blogspot.com/2011/08/sanctification-iii-doctrine-of-three.html
Evelyn Underhill in Mystic Way A Psychological Study In Christian Origins , wrote the following, “There is a marked development in the Pauline epistles, which also throws light on their author’s growth in the new life. The series of letters from 1st Thessalonians to Philippians, from A.D. 50 to A.D. 60 clearly reflect the changes taking place in the mind which composed them: its steady process of transcendence, its movement on the Mystic Way.” (1913, p.180).
The late Bishop of Durham J.B. Lightfoot offered fascinating comments in his book Biblical Essays (1893) “1st and 2nd Thessalonians reveals Christ as Judge and penance. This would coincide with Paul’s Purgative stage of spiritual development. Romans, 1st and 2nd Corinthians and Galatians would coincide with his Illuminative stage of development and reveals Christ as “Savior-God”. Philippians, Philemon, Ephesians and Colossians portray Christ as the “Indwelling Word”. This would be a product of the Unitive stage of spiritual development. “We turn to the third group of Epistles and at once we notice a change of subject-matter. The metaphysical, mystical, contemplative aspects of the Gospel are brought out into special prominence.” (p.232).
The church has traditionally attributed all the epistles mentioned here, to Paul. Modern scholarship has cast doubt on the authorship of many of Paul’s letters but has not always taken into account the fact that Paul was not the same person thirty years after his conversion.
It is also worth considering when conducting Bible studies, what stage of spiritual development the participants are at. Curriculum development should be geared to the level of those being instructed. For spiritual directors this also has application. For those who want to focus on doctrine, it might be useful to take a second look at the end of Paul’s writings, not just the middle.
“Many a phrase which has provided a handle or an obstacle for critics, is but the hopeless attempt of the mystic to communicate by means of artistic symbols his actual and supernal experience to unmystical men.” (Mystic Way A Psychological Study In Christian Origins (Evelyn Underhill, p.194)