Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

St Paul Offers Five Ways Of Dialogue And Mission

by Fr. Mariasusai Dhavamony, S.J.


This is the text of Fr Mariasusai Dhavamony, S.J., on St Paul's five different ways of dialogue and mission as interpreted by Bishop Pietro Rossano. It was given during the Days of Reflection (16-20 June) on the mission of the Bishop and his pioneering involvement in interreligious Dialogue. Fr Dhavomony is a professor at the Gregorian University in the Faculty of Missiology.

Larger Work

L'Osservatore Romano



Publisher & Date

Vatican, 1 August 2001


The differences inscribed in particular religions require that the Christian enter into a particular differentiated relationship with each of them. Lumen gentium (n. 16) describes the various ways in which "those who have not yet received the Gospel are related to the People of God", starting with the people of the Covenant and ending with "those who are still devoid of any faith in God". Nostra aetate begins with those who are vaguely aware of a "hidden power which hovers over the course of things" (n. 2) and ends up with the "spiritual bond linking the people of the New Covenant with Abraham's stock" (n. 4). The way of referring to the various religions in different ways finds its model in St Paul, who related the Gospel in different ways to the Hebrews in the Synagogue of Antioch of Pisidia (Acts 13, 15-41); to the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers of Athens (Acts 17, 18-31); to the followers of Cosmic polytheism of Lystra (Acts 14, 11-18); to the Gnostics of Asia Minor (Eph, Col); and to the polytheist and ambiguous cults of Corinth (I Cor 10, 19-22).

1. Dialogue With The Jews In The Synagogue Of Pisidian Antioch

Acts 13, 15-41 contains the great inaugural discourse of Paul typical of his preaching to the Jews. It falls into two parts: a summary of the history of salvation with an appeal to John the Baptist's testimony (vv. 16-25); the proclamation that Jesus who died and has risen is the expected Messiah and the suggestion of the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith. While the primary claim of the Jews to the Gospel had been recognized, their refusal of the Gospel became a contributory, though not the primary (cf. Acts 10-11), cause of the Gentile mission. While Paul is the Gentile missionary par excellence, he also does more than any other early Church figure to promote the mission to the Jews. Paul's doctrine of Law and Grace, i.e., his theology of justification is the basis of his theological outlook, including his attitude to the Gentiles. For Paul the Law, though in itself good, does not lead to salvation but to sin (Gal 3,19; Rom 4,13-16; Cor 3.6), and serves God's purpose by preparing men for the revelation of his righteousness in Christ, which puts an end to the Law as a way of salvation (Rom 4,10). For Gentiles to turn to the Law as a means of salvation would be equivalent to returning to their previous slavery to the elemental cosmic powers (Gal 4,8-10). This new revelation in Christ is universal; it both condemns and reaches out to all (Rom 1,14), for as all were condemned in Adam so all are saved in Christ (Rom 5,12 ff). Thus on the basis of the work of Christ alone, Paul can claim that there is no distinction between Jew and Greek (Rom 3,22 ff). Jews and Gentiles are united in the one epochal event of salvation, which is rooted in Christ's death and resurrection (P. Rossano, IlNuovo Testamento (traduzione e commento), Torino, 1963, 1964; Id. Meditazioni su San Paolo, Roma, 1967).

2. Dialogue With The Followers Of Cosmic Polytheism Of Lystra

The Acts 14,11-18 contains the episode of the reaction to the healing of a cripple by the people who witnessed Paul's miracle. The crowd shouted: "These people (Paul and Barnabas) are gods who have come down to us as disguised men". They called Barnabas Zeus and Paul Hermes (the Latin Mercury), the god's mouthpiece, since Paul was the principal speaker at the incident. The priests of Zeus proposed that all people together with them should offer sacrifice and brought garlanded oxen. Paul and Barnabas tore their clothes (a sign of displeasure) and shouted that they were only human beings like the crowd. "We have come with good news to make you turn from these empty idols to the living God who made heaven and earth and the sea and all that these hold. In the past he allowed each nation to go its own way; but even then he did not leave you without evidence of himself in the good things that he does for you: he sends you rain from heaven, he makes your crops grow when they should, he gives you food and makes you happy" (Acts 14, 15-18). In preaching against polytheism it was customary to contrast the true God with the false, the living God with helpless idols, and to make an appeal for conversion. That God creates the universe shows that he is a living God. Belief in the gods in Asia Minor was so strong that people could easily be induced to affirm that they had actually appeared on earth. The text speaks of God giving witness through the created order by providing "rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness" (Acts 14, 17). Paul stressed God's providential rule over the Gentiles while he was at Lystra. God makes use of the general revelation to reach the unevangelized. God's witness is present universally, and the Holy Spirit makes use of this witness to reach the unevangelized and bring them into a salvific relationship with God. Zeus is the Sky god, god of light and of day. Hermes, son of Zeus and Maia, messenger of the gods, god of science and eloquence, etc. Zeus is the supreme god of the Greeks, Father and Saviour of men. He was the god of victory, supreme legislator, protector of property and of liberty (P. Rossano, Paolo in: Nuovo Dizionario di Teologia, n. 7: Gli Ebrei e i non cristiani, Ed. Paoline, Cinisello Balsamo, 1988; Id. Religioni non cristiane, in: Dizionario del Conc. Ecum. Vat. II; Id. La Creazione nel Nuovo Testamento, Studia Missionalia, 1969, pp. 315ff).

3. Dialogue With The Stoic And Epicurean Philosophers Of Athens

Acts 17, 18-31 contains Paul's discourse on the knowledge of God. The Gentiles are accused of not knowing God (v. 23) because they worship idols (v. 29). Their ignorance is culpable (v. 30) since all men are capable of knowing God as creator and controller of the cosmos (vv. 24-29). The Gentiles used to dedicate altars to the unknown gods lest they provoke the vengeance of the gods they did not know. Paul turns this to his advantage: the God whom Paul preaches is the one whom they worship without knowing it. Since the God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth, he does not make his home in shrines made by human hands nor does he depend on anything made by humans. He does not need anything; he himself gives everything, even life and breath, to everyone. The order of the cosmos is enough to lead to a knowledge of God. "And he did this so that all nations might seek him and by feeling their way towards him, succeed in finding him. For he is not far from anyone of us, since it is in him that we live, and move, and exist as indeed some of your own writers have said: We are all his children" (citation from the Phainomena of Aratus, 3rd c. B.C.; and Cleanthes, the Stoic). Paul appeals for repentance against the background of judgement. Christ's resurrection justifies belief in his coming as judge and saviour at the end of time (P. Rossano, L'Apostolo e i filosofi, pp. 193-209; 220-224, Ed. Paoline, n. 7, 1967; Id. De religionibus non christianis in historia salutis, Acta Cong. Internatio. De Theologia Conc. Vaticano II, ed. Vaticana, 1968, pp. 432-436; Id. L'Ideale dell'assimilazione a Dio nello Stoicismo e nel Nuovo Testamento, Alba, 1954; San Paolo e I'Ellenismo in Rivista Biblica, 1955; Id. La Bibbia e Ie religioni degli uomini, Seminarium, 1972, pp. 243ff).

Paul recognizes the universal dimensions of the salvific action of God centred in Christ in his discourses in Acts (14,15-17; 17,22). The religious quest is perceived as the expression and epiphany of the creaturehood of human beings and of their being called to Christ. God moves men to seek him and to touch and find him, though he is not far from any of them (Acts 17,27). This instinct of the inviting God is Christocentric because Christ is the future of humanity, the image of the perfect human being on whom we are modelled (I Cor 15,48-49) (P. Rossano, Christ's Lordship and Religious Pluralism in Roman Catholic Perspective in: G.H. Anderson and T.F. Stransky, Christ's Lordship and Religious Pluralism, Orbis Books, 1981, 100ff). The problem of supernatural revelation in religions arises here. Primary revelation (uroffenbarung), non-thematic, non-categorial, general revelation is admitted, distinct from the special, historical Christian revelation (P. Rossano, Teologia e Religioni, in: R. Latourelle e G. O'Collins, Problemi e Prospettive di Teologia Fondamentale, Queriniana, Brescia, 1980; P. Rossano, Dialogue, Maieutic and Kerygma in St Paul, in: Bulletin, 13 (1970), n. 1, pp. 46-51).

4. Dialogue With The Gnostics Of Asia Minor (Ephesians And Colossians)

Bp Rossano cites L. Cerfaux: "By opposing the speculations of Ephesians and Colossians, St Paul presents Christ and the Church in their cosmic role; in simple terms he affirms that the Christian system embraces the plenitude of the universe. On this his thought encounters the Hellenistic theory of corpus magnum. One would explain by Hellenistic parallels that Christ has become the head of the Church. Zeus is the head and intelligence of the world. Nero for Seneca the head and the spirit of the State; the high Priest for Philo is also the head of the Jewish people. These conceptions of the royalty have modified the primitive comparison of body and members..." (cf. Paul en dialogue avec Corinthe et Ephese, Parole et Mission, 1971, p. 216). If Christ is the head of the body of the Church, he is also the Creator and the Principle of the entire universe. Christ is the author, centre and end of the whole creation. Two principles are admitted at the basis of the universe, by separating God from the world of matter at the point of hollowing between the two an abyss of silence, which one would people with intermediary beings; powers, eons and angels. Christ is the author of the whole creation (Col 1.16-17), Christ is the head of the whole creation and he is the head of the new creation and of all that exists supernaturally through having been saved (Col 1.18-20). The main theme of the Letter to Ephesians is how the whole body of creation, cut off from the Creator by sin, is decomposing, and how its rebirth is effected by Christ reuniting all its parts into an organism with himself as the head so as to re-attach it to God. The human (Jew and Pagan) and the Angelic worlds are brought together through the fact that they were saved by a single act. The Jews are chosen to be the human share allotted to God, and are to be his witnesses until the coming of the Messiah. The Pagans are called to share the salvation that had been reserved for the Jews; that they will be saved is proved by the fact that they receive the Spirit as promised (Eph 1.10 ff). In order to transmit his gospel of salvation with clarity and attraction, Paul consciously uses the language of the imperial religion in order to expound the authentic revelation of the true God. This is why Christ appears as "The King, the Lord, the Saviour, the great God, eternal, incorruptible, the only God who has manifested his love and his salvation". Here is the dialogue of Christianity with the main elements of the ancient classical cultural religion. Vatican II invites us to open the dialogue with the cultures and religions of the entire world (P. Rossano, Paul en dialogue avec Corinthe et Ephese, art. cit., pp. 217 ff. See also P. Rossano, Vangelo e culture a Efeso e nella Provincia d'Asia al tempo di S. Paolo e di S. Giovanni, in: Civilta classica e cristiana, 1 (1980, n. 1, pp. 283-298)).

5. Dialogue With The Polytheists And The Practicers Of Ambiguous Cults Of Corinth

I Cor 10, 19-22: before dealing with the problem of food sacrificed to idols, Paul quotes the Old Testament to remind Corinthians about the dangers of idolatry so as to keep them from joining in the sacrificial meals (I Cor 10, 14-22). Paul alludes to the mystique of divine possession when he writes: "You remember that when you were pagans whenever you felt irresistibly drawn, it was to dumb idols?" (I Cor 12, 2). Corinthian gnosticism developed around the mystery cults of Dionysius and Isis. Paul has reacted in accord with the philosophical milieu of his audience. Rossano refers to the themes: mystical interiority, the presence of God, of Christ and of the Spirit in Christians, and the body as temple of God. Compare the sentences of the Pythagorian Sextus: "As elected by God you possess something divine which inhabits your body. Treat therefore your body as the temple of God". "A good soul is the dwelling place of God". "God inhabits the soul of the wise". "Honour in you the divine and do not profane it with the concupiscences of the body". Analogous thoughts are found in Seneca, Posidonius, Hermetism and Neo-Platonism. Analogies are evident with I Cor 3, 16 ff; 6, 19; 12, 6; 15, 28. II Cor 6, 16 the Christian expression of the nature and personal destiny of man (anthropology and eschatology) is also related to the Hellenistic milieu of Corinth, especially II Cor 5, 1-10 (J. Dupont, L'Union avec Ie Christ suivant St Paul, Bruges, 1952, p. 170). The opposition between the domicile of the soul in the body and that outside of the body, i.e., with the divinity, is characteristic of Greek culture. The antithesis between the transitory on earth and the eternal in heaven, the designation of the body as house, tent, vase; the consideration of death as migration, departure, detachment show the elements of Hellenistic culture (L. Cerfaux, L'itineraire spirituel de Saint Paul, Paris, 1966, p. 73). The image of the body as the heuristic criterion and the means of expression for an ecclesiology in I Corinthians are of Hellenistic inspiration. The conception of the world as 'magnum corpus' was widespread at the period of St Paul (W. L. Knox, St Paul and the Church of the Gentiles, Cambridge, 1939, pp. 159-163; P. Rossano, Paul en dialogue avec Corinthe et Ephese Parole et Mission, 1971, pp. 209, especially 213 ff). It is certain that Paul found himself in difficulty over the question of sacrificial food. It is possible that he did in some respects change his position. But he at no point admitted the view that a Christian must never eat what has been sacrificed to an idol, still less that he must never eat meat that has not been slaughtered in conformity with the Jewish regulations. But he stated that sacrificial food may be eaten (I Cor 10, 25.27). He hedges these statements by referring to the conscience, not of the eater, but of his weak Christian brother (C.K. Barrett, Essays on Paul, SPCK, London, 1982, ch. 3: Things sacrificed to Idols, esp. pp. 45-53).

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