Paul’s Contribution to Christianity Essay
It seems strange that so little is known biographically about one of the most important figures in Christian history, but this only serves to add to the mystery and grandeur surrounding the Apostle Paul of Tarsus.
Much, however, is known of the time after his conversion to Christ and what he did to contribute to Christianity in this period, and it is this that leaves a greater legacy than the simple facts of his life. The contributions that he made towards the cause of Christ and the spreading and formation of Christianity are what he is perennially remembered for.
Paul is remembered as a missionary and church planter. He undertook three extensive missionary journeys, estimated to have taken place in A.D. 44, 49 and 53. He spent much of his time when he was imprisoned or not journeying writing letters to churches he had helped to start in the various locations he had visited. Paul’s practice when visiting a new town was to start by talking at the synagogue and showing that Jesus was the promised Jewish messiah.
From here, he took under his nurture any Jewish believers that converted to this new ‘way’ and also any Gentiles (i.e. non-Jews) that chose to accept his message. He stayed in each town as long as he deemed necessary by his own judgment or divine providence and usually devised a church structure with elders to look after young or inexperienced believers so that the church would remain healthy after he had gone to the next town.
And Paul went to many cities and towns throughout the whole Roman Empire, the then known world. He was such a threat to Roman society that Nero had him executed circa A.D. 68.
He was an early missionary, and an extensively travelled and successful one, but he was not alone. Many others are known, such as Barnabas, John Mark and Silas. For these believers, mission was simply a way of life. As one of these missionaries, Paul spread the gospel throughout Israel, Greece, Italy, and Turkey, much of the Mediterranean and even, some claim, to Spain [González 1984]. Christianity’s prevalence in Europe is probably due to Paul’s journeys.
While missionaries were common in Paul’s time, writing letters to churches was rare. Paul is remembered most as the writer of many epistles, which contributed to the positive development of churches that he had formed or heard about.
It can only be assumed that these letters were influential and widespread in his time. But the influence of these letters has gone beyond their intended contexts. Many of Paul’s writings have been immortalised by inclusion in the Bible. These sacred writings comprise of thirteen of the twenty-seven books found in the New Testament from Romans to Philemon, though up to six of these epistles could be pseudepigraphal.
These books have served as the basis of Christian theology and ethics. Paul was and is “the unique interpreter of the meaning of Christ’s life and death in terms of salvation for sinful man.” [Zacharias 2006, p. 51]. As an ex-Pharisee, he knew firsthand the radical difference that Christ brought into an individual’s religion and was an important mediator between Jews and Gentiles.
His opening of the gospel to the Gentiles was his greatest purpose in life (Acts 9:15) and without it Christianity would not be widespread throughout Europe and the Western world. What are today regarded as “Christian nations” consist of people that would be traditionally Gentiles, and without Paul, would have been excluded from Christianity.
The crux of Paul’s teachings came to fruition largely at the council of Jerusalem. Issues had arisen concerning the role that circumcision and the Mosaic Law would have for these believers, who were still considered a sect within Judaism.
Paul paved the way for Christianity by speaking boldly of the miracles that God had performed among uncircumcised Gentiles, thus displaying that there was no distinction in God’s sight between Jews and Gentiles, and the only criterion to be reborn into a new life was faith in Jesus Christ as the messiah. It was here that Christianity made its schism from Judaism to become a religion in its own right, and this rejection of exclusivity defined the central doctrines of Christianity.
Paul was not fighting against the Law of Moses – he knew the law, and that obeying the commandments would lead to happiness. But he also knew that Christ had come to fulfil the law as messiah, and to reconcile the world to himself (2 Corinthians 5:19). He did not interpose rejection of the law, but was polemical of Jewish Christians excluding Gentiles on grounds such as circumcision. As he was later to say of the event, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)
This teaching has impacted Christianity in history through the lives of individuals but most significantly through the Reformation of the 16th Century. Martin Luther was strongly convicted on this issue, seeing it as the epitome of Paul’s teachings.
Because Luther stood for this issue unfalteringly, he was persecuted and excommunicated. He and his followers formed the Protestant Church, turning away from Catholicism in disgust at their practices of indulgences to gain salvation, making his mantra, “the just shall live by faith.” (Hab. 2:4, Rom. 1:17) This was scripture that Paul had restated in his most famous and complete theological epistle, Romans. This influence of Paul brought about conflict, but also good and freedom, and a new expression of Christianity.
Today, Catholic and Protestant churches still hold different views over what Paul meant in this passage, but they are not irreconcilable as they once were. The Catholic perspective is that, by God’s grace, people are to repent and come to God. God the Father will then send the Holy Spirit to help this believer change their nature, thus transforming them into one just before God. The general Protestant perspective is that Jesus Christ’s righteousness is a substitute for our own, which plays no part in the justification process.
Simply by acceptance of Jesus Christ as an atoning sacrifice, justification is gained. This is seen in some translations of the Bible in Galatians 2:16: “Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ.” Some translations change the word “of” to “in,” and herein lies the issue – is justification gained by the faith that Jesus Christ had in place of our own, or is it our faith in Jesus that determines justification? This is the difference in interpretation that Protestants and Catholics still have over Paul’s teaching of justification by faith thus contributing to the diversity of expression within Christianity.
Paul’s contribution to Christianity in his day and the ages since simply cannot be overstated. His title as the “second founder” of Christianity is well deserved, and by his teachings individuals and groups find spiritual
satisfaction within all variants of Christianity.
Clark says that, “In determining the influence of any person we have to consider how their beliefs or words or deeds changed the society of their time and the society which came after.”  Paul certainly lives up to this as he has significantly influenced all Christians, to some extent, in his theology, his epistles and his journeys.