This being the season of the Apostles, I’m seeing a number of Internet posts trying to suggest a conflict between “Petrine” and “Pauline” Christianity, based on Paul’s account in Galatians, and Luke’s in Acts.
We’d do well to note that this was a disagreement between
- two Torah-observant Jewish Apostles of Christ;
- who had already been receiving converts from the nations without imposing the Jewish law on them (Ac 10-11; c.40 AD);
- whose momentary disagreement at Antioch came about because of a group from Jerusalem who taught the necessity of circumcision and dietary regulations (Ga 2:3-4,12; c. 50 AD);
- and who were quickly reconciled after the Apostles in synod determined that the Jewish law is not for the nations (Ac 15; c. 50 AD);
- and who always respected one another as fellow Apostles of Christ: “He who worked effectively in Peter for the apostleship…” (Ga 2:8; c. 57 AD). “Our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written to you, as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures.” (2 Pt 3:15-16; c. 65 AD).
St Paul’s account in Ch 2 of his letter to the Galatians may sound at first reading as if it indicated a deep division regarding Torah observance. And indeed in the first and second century there were sects that sought to fit Christ into the “old wineskins” of Torah and Temple and the commandments of the Mosaic law: history calls these sects Ebionites, Mandaeans, Nasoraeans, and so on. But notice that with this one exception — noted by both Paul and Luke because of its singular nature — the Church of the Apostles in Jerusalem, Antioch and throughout the world never required Torah observance of those who came to faith in Christ. Rather, “Judaizing” is always seen by the earliest Christian fathers as a corrupting influence from outside the Church. Hence St Ignatius, writing about 100AD to the Church at Magnesia, says: “It is absurd to profess Christ Jesus, and to Judaize. For Christianity did not embrace Judaism, but Judaism embraced Christianity, that so every tongue which believes might be gathered together to God” (Magnesians ch. 10).
Rather than pointing to an imagined split in the earliest days of the Church, this event ought to serve as a lesson in the conciliar and God-guided nature of the Church. All the Apostles gather, each makes his case, and they deliberate until they can say with certainty “It seems good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Ac 15:28). And afterward, the matter being satisfied by the unambiguous canon of the synod of all the Apostles, there is peace within the Church. After this, whenever the question arises, the Apostles’ response is to refer back to the conciliar decision (Ac 21:17-25).
Here is the lesson we ought to take away: The Church is made up of humans, fallible and often full of passions, but she is “guided into all truth” by the Holy Spirit (Jn 16:13) Who corrects the errors of our generation – even the errors of our fallible hierarchs. Our faith is not in an infallible institution or magisterium or an inspired text subject to our private interpretation. Our faith is in the living God, who built His Church “and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” (Mt 16:18). In Acts 15, and in the rippling effects that afterward spread from that Council throughout the New Testament Church, we see how this divine guidance and preservation work out in practice.