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Dr. Larry Arnn on the letters of Paul and Revelation

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HH: It’s the hour of Hillsdale, the Hillsdale Dialogues. Once a week in the company of Dr. Larry Arnn, the president of Hillsdale College, or one of his wonderful colleagues, I take the audience into the one of the great works of the Western canon in an effort to lift everybody up and get everyone back on the same page. It’s become wildly popular in the two months that we have been doing this. Every single one of these podcasts is available free of charge from Hillsdale College. All one needs to do is go to www.hillsdale.edu and find the dialogues. There’s a shortcut – www.hughforhillsdale.com. And there’s a button at www.hughhewitt.com, but everything, including incredible lectures on the Constitution and the progressive, and American civilization and the West, Hillsdale puts a great deal of material available to anyone who will just simply sign up at www.hillsdale.edu. They’ll even send you Imprimus free. Their idea is to build a free people who actually understand what’s going on around them, and they do so in many wonderful ways. Dr. Arnn, before we dive into the New Testament and the letters of Paul, I must say Hillsdale’s commitment to online and open learning is remarkable.

LA: Yeah, thank you for that. But you know, we’re teachers, so it’s relatively easy. And we find that people love to learn. And if you really get serious about it, you’re going to have to quit your job and come back and enroll in class, and sit in classrooms with 15 or 20 people in them with very learned people and get all your questions answered, because they show up on your face even before you can answer them. That’s the best way to learn. But the second best way to learn is learn and think, and listen to people who know. And the way we do in these courses, and we’re going to make them better all the time, it’s our intention, there will be more and more, you’ll be able to have input and get responses back and talk with other people. And we want to encourage the highest kind of friendship, which is the kind that’s gathered around learning the best things. So we want that to spread very widely.

HH: And I am pleased to be an agent in that. Now let’s talk about the highest kind of friendship. I don’t know that Paul had any friends. He had colleagues.

LA: He wasn’t a very friendly guy.

HH: The apostle Paul, or St. Paul of the New Testament, and I must say I have a handicap as a product of Roman Catholic education, K-12, you don’t read much Paul, You’re a little leery of Paul. You stay away from Paul. You read the Gospels a lot, and you get the Church fathers, but you stay pretty far from Paul, so you have to go back and learn that later on. How do you approach Paul when you sit down with your Hillsdale students?

LA: Gingerly. No, Paul is terribly important, of course. And sometimes, he’s a self-righteous prig, you know, going on about how great he is and how great his pains are, and sometimes, he’s the most humble person in the world. I was a persecutor of the followers of Jesus. And sometimes, he seems to expect, by the way, that the world is not going to go on for very much longer, because he doesn’t seem to think that it’s the best thing…you know, if you could do it, it would be a really great idea not to get married. Of course, if we don’t do that, given the rules of Christianity, you’re not going to have any kids, so I guess it would be only the Christians who wouldn’t be procreating. So there’s a lot of stuff in here like that. He’s very stern. Now having said all that, we read that passage, right, and he wrote that passage.

HH: Two weeks ago. We should reread it to people from Hebrews 12:18-29.

LA: It’s very beautiful. And Paul, the reason you have to read Paul is because first of all, it’s most of the letters. But second, it is very important in the working out of some things that require to be worked out for Christianity to go, because I’ll list some of those things, and they’re all huge things. What is the status of the Mosaic law now? Jesus was a Jew. The Jews, in the understanding of Christians, were the people preparing the way for Jesus, and they are very important, still are after Jesus is born, and now. But what about all these laws they’ve got? Do you have to follow those things or not? How are we to understand this succession line that Jesus is in? And the succession line partly comes from Kings in lineage. But also, the succession line comes from priests in authority. Is Jesus some kind of a new priest, high priest, different sort of high priest, grander yet? There are sacrifices in the Jewish faith. Do we still need those? No, Jesus has now made the sacrifice that is sufficient to atone. The scale, the justice of the incarnation and the crucifixion and the resurrection are explained in Paul. And by justice, I just mean there’s a price to be paid when a wrong is done, or a right is done. And that price was paid in the old law, according to Paul, by sacrificing valuable animals, mainly. And now, and that could never do anything. That could never atone fully for a human wrong, the great weight of human wrong. But for God to come and be a human, and sacrifice Himself, that is sufficient. And that is worked out in the pages of Paul. Then another thing, really important, what are we going to do about all these people who are not Jews? And Peter and Paul, in particular, are the ones who are sent to sort that out. And the idea is now we’re all one. Now there’s not a chosen people. Everyone who chooses God, with God’s help, is a chosen soul. And so those things, oh, here’s another thing, this is very important, how can God have a Son? How are we going to understand now about this? You know, God seems to have parts. And the beginnings of that are worked out in Paul, especially, but in the New Testament after the Gospels.

HH: I thought you were also going to say that he engages not just Rome in his famous epistle, but also Greece, so that he is taking the new way into the heart of the old ways, to the two powers of that era.

LA: That’s a good point, because Paul is a learned man. He was a Jewish learned man. And so he has the intellectual tools to explain things. And he does that especially in the Aeropagus, and he gives a big talk and introduces them to the unknown God, you know, they’re worshipping an unknown God. They want to make sure they cover all their bases, and the Romans were pantheists, right? If you get conquered by the Romans, and everybody did, whatever your gods were, we’re glad to have them, welcome in. We’ll all worship them all now, and we’re even have one for the unknown God. And Paul is very artful in explaining that I can now tell you who that God is. This is what this fellow is like. And he shows how Nietzsche, he didn’t mean this kindly to Christianity, but he said that Christ is Plato for the masses, that is to say the one idea, the great good, incarnate, the good that rules all the other goods. And so yeah, and he has to work it out with the classical world. And I do want to say something about this idea of a God with parts, because that comes to be worked out in the letters, but also later in learned discourse, that God has three parts, and that His having three parts, they have to be eternally there. There’s not one part, and then other parts come later. But if there are three parts, God the Father, God the Son, and the Holy Spirit, then there can be an activity going on from before time, and for all eternity. And that activity is love. And so that gets worked out, and the ground is laid for that, at least. And if I were a better scholar of it, I could say whether it was fully worked out or not, in the letters of Paul, because the Jews didn’t think of God that way, and that the fact that God is an activity, an activity of love, you know, the one explanation of it is the Father loves the Son, and the Son is what the Father has to say. The Son is the Word. And then because there are two of them there, there’s also a Spirit of their relationship. And so that all has to be figured out, right, because then what about the fact that the Messiah has come, and he doesn’t establish a polity? He doesn’t set up a regime, a governance? And so there’s not anything to join up and make laws. There’s just this Church to join up and believe things, and have some practices that go along with the beliefs.

HH: And that’s got to be reconciled to the world as well, another task for Paul. We’ll continue to talk about the letters of Paul and Revelation when we return.

— – –

HH: Dr. Arnn, when we were talking last segment, and you were talking about the things that Paul had to accomplish, I was marveling to myself again at how the extraordinary just existence of the events, Jesus enters into the world at a particular time and place, and Paul enters immediately thereafter to provide the transition to the new world so that just the sequencing of events ought to give a non-believer pause, because none of this happens but for the miraculous intervention and the reality of Christ, and then the following on of Paul to establish, along with Peter, the working out of how this is going to grow. It’s really kind of remarkable, and it’s never happened to anybody else.

LA: That’s is. It’s, you know, and it’s…they’re struggling. You know, these letters, by the way, you see, Paul writes these letters to people. They’re called letters, because they’re letters. You know, Dear Joe, Dear Philemon, Dear whoever I’m writing to. And many of the contentions, many of these subjects, I think it’s probably true to say most of these big, theological subjects that are made, that are raised by the phenomenon of Christ, are worked out in the letters of Paul in an argument through correspondence, because you say it’s this, and no, it’s got to be like this. That won’t work, right? And that’s a preview of what the great Christian synods and arguments have been about, and the work that was done to develop the creeds that are since early Christianity, still recited today in most Churches. So Paul is doing that work, and it’s an intellectual work. And of course, it’s more than that, too, because Paul’s body is on the line, just like Jesus’ was, and just like Peter’s eventually would be. Paul is stoned, he is arrested. Several of these letters, and several of the best of them, are written from prison. And sometimes, he goes on about that, this sounds to me like a little unmanly, like maybe he’s whining a bit, but most of the time, not like that. Most of the time, they’re simply sublime. And he counts the privilege of being there. And so he produces these writings. And you know, here’s another thing about it that I wish I were a better scholar. I studied Greek in graduate school, and I’ve not used it for 30 years, so I’m miserable. But not New Testament Greek, and so I can’t, I don’t really know how it works. My favorite translation is the King James translation, because it’s very beautiful. But Paul can be terribly awkward to read. And if you read it carefully, you can see what’s he’s saying. But Lord, why doesn’t he just say it, you ask yourself, and I don’t know for sure if that’s a translation problem.

HH: But there are points where in Corinthians, if I speak in the tongues of men and of angels but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clinging symbol. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have faith that can move mountains but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flame but I have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient, love it kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered. It keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease. Where there are tongues, they will be stilled. Where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and prophecy in part. But when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror. Then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part. Then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain – faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. Is that not a perfect chapter?

LA: Sometimes, I think God abandoned him to poor grammar and construction. But God talked to him often, too. It’s just lovely. I’ll counter back. My favorite passage in the letters, I think my favorite letter, is to Philippians. And in the fourth chapter, here’s advice for all young people and old people. Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there be any excellence, if there be anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

HH: You must tell your students that all the time.

LA: Oh, yeah. We don’t shut up about that around here.

HH: I may put that on the cover of my next book. That’s a good thing for student to learn. So of course, though, he does not, he doesn’t, he’s a very human person, and he goes back to Jerusalem, and he fires people, and people dump him, and people jump in with him, and the Romans end up killing him, because he’s such a pain in the neck. What a person. What a man.

LA: Yeah, and see, you know, doesn’t he fall prey to Nero, right, one of the worst men ever to live.

HH: Yes.

LA: And we can outdo Nero in the modern world, because we’re more modern. But if he’d been a modern, he would have been like Hitler or somebody. And you know, Paul is first when he’s arrested, you see, this is sort of a parallel to the story of Jesus. Paul is treated as a really interesting guy to listen to. When he’s arrested, these Jews bring a complaint against him, and when I say these Jews, I always want to remind people he was a Jew. And they take him up before the Romans, and they take him around the way they did Jesus after his arrest, and people talk to him. And they’re curious about him. And you know, they’re near to letting him go several times. And then he gets to Rome, and he’s very well treated, and he’s given a soldier to live around him, to make sure he doesn’t run away. But people can come and see him, and he does a lot of talking, and gives a major address in Rome. And so Paul was a galvanizing man, and Christ-like in this, he was very radical and uncompromising, and yet people could tell that he was not, he was loving.

HH: A minute to the break, and then we’ll come back and talk about the letters of Peter and John, and then in the last segment, Revelation. But tell them, how do you, which of the letters do you actually make sure the students read at Hillsdale?

LA: Well, they read Acts, and it’s not a letter, actually, but it was written by Luke, one of the, the author of what I think is my favorite of the Gospels. And we read Philippians, and I can’t remember what else we read.

HH: Do you tackle Romans where a million Sunday School hours have been spent?

LA: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, we read Romans. HH: My friend, Mike Regele, has taught two year sequences on Romans. I don’t know that that’s the way they were intended to be read, Dr. Arnn. I thought as letters, they ought to be sat down and read as letters would be read.

LA: Yeah, and you know, by the way, that’s the way to read anything. We do read them that way here. And you know, to read something closely is a different way of reading it than to read it just through. But you know, the Galatians and the Ephesians, and the Corinthians, they probably read those letters really closely.

HH: Repeatedly.

LA: Yeah, sure. And you know, they’ve been read repeatedly for two millennia now.

— – – –

HH: About these, I won’t call them minor letters, because they’re not minor men. They do not receive the same amount of attention, Larry Arnn, as does the letters, as do the letters of Paul. But they are, they’re vastly important to the working out of the same issues we talked about that Paul had to address.

LA: Very much, and each of them add something important. And you know, maybe I’m thinking during the break, but I probably have had the same attitude you have. I never liked Paul when I was young. I always liked Peter.

HH: Yes.

LA: And I liked his letters better than Paul’s letters. And I don’t, why did I like, I can tell you why I liked Peter better. Peter is impulsive and brave and cowardly. And he’s passionate, and he becomes like the grand poobah after the crucifixion. And Paul and he never get on.

HH: Never.

LA: And how could they, thinking what they’re like? And you know, Paul is a late comer compared to Peter. And so they have their joustings in Paul’s letters. But so anyway, it’s like a great review I read once of a publication of the books of Cicero. Okay, okay, Cicero’s really important, but what we’re trying to figure out is do we like this guy?

HH: (laughing) And we do like Peter, and we root for him to win, right?

LA: We really like Peter.

HH: We’re glad, and you know, the Catholic, if you are a Catholic, a cradle Catholic and educated Catholic, you get all the letters of Peter, and they kind of push Paul over to the side.

LA: Oh, yeah.

HH: And then they throw James at you, because James is very workish.

LA: Yeah, that’s right, he’s very workish. And you know, upon this rock, I will build…thou are Peter, and the word Peter, petros is stone, right?

HH: Yes.

LA: Thou art Peter, and upon this rock, I will build My Church. And what you bind on Earth, I will bind in Heaven. And what you loose on Earth, I will loose in Heaven. That is the justification for the papacy, right?

HH: Yes.

LA: A strong, Scriptural one, and it was said to Peter. So the Catholics love Peter. And I love Peter. And I love him almost as much for his failings, because you know, what misery can it have been for the man who was ready to fight to have denied Jesus?

HH: Yeah.

LA: So…and that’s in his background when he writes these letters. And they’re great to read, and he’s the one who has the dream about the gentiles, and about the food doesn’t matter, and stuff like that. And he is glad, as is Paul, crucial to the opening of Christianity to all the peoples on Earth. Jesus says that, but it has to be worked out in practice, and it’s Peter and Paul more than anyone who do that.

HH: I have to ask you, even though it’s a diversion, you are a Churchill scholar. And Churchill lived in a country that had a very uneasy relationship with Catholicism. What did Churchill think about, you know, he loved the Church of England, of course, but about the Catholic institution?

LA: Oh, well, he thought very important that England be a Protestant country. In his History Of The English-Speaking Peoples, he’s on the side of Elizabeth, and not on the side of James, but that’s because Catholicism, he though, and I think he was right, in those days, was meddling in politics in a way that it ought not to be. And by the way, it very much doesn’t do that today, and you know, the doctrines about that are taken to their utmost advance by John Paul and Benedict. So he thought that. So in other words, as a political matter, and looking at the history of England, needed to be Protestant. But Churchill was radically in favor, as any decent person is in my opinion, of freedom of religion. And so Churchill lived, by the way, for the years of the 1930s when he was in London, overlooking the playgrounds of the school of the Roman Catholic cathedral in London. And it just so happens that all of the land around that was bombed out, but the cathedral was spared. And his block of houses was spared. And his house was for sale not long ago, and I longed to buy it, but 11 Morpeth Mansions. And when people come and see, you give them directions and you say, he’d write, this is a house of many mansions. That was always the first sentence. So to find that place, he’d start out, this is a house of many mansions. Yeah, but he thought Catholicism a great force in the modern time, and Christianity in general, he thought terribly important that it be vibrant and strong in England. He wrote a letter about the Titanic to his wife, and how brave they were.

HH: Afterwards, after the break, I’ll be right back with Dr. Larry Arnn.

— – – –

HH: Dr. Arnn, we were going to break, you were saying Churchill thought about the people on the Titanic. We can’t leave that one without returning to it.

LA: Oh, it was really good. I’ll paraphrase it. It’s a letter to his wife, because you know, the Titanic story is not as it is presented in the great terrible movie by James Cameron. There was incredible acts of courage. And Churchill reflects, he says, and this is a paraphrase to his wife, in the Greek and Roman worlds, he said, the satraps, with their concubines and retainers, would have taken to the boats and leaving everybody else behind. Our Christian civilization has nothing to apologize to the ancient world from the point of view of courage.

HH: Nicely said, beautifully said. Let me turn to Revelation, and in an interesting time. We are talking as the cardinals of the Roman Catholic Curia are electing a new leader. About this new leader there is a great deal of, lots of speculation. It’s the last portrait in St. Paul outside the walls. There’s only room for one more. There’s much talk about whether or not St. Malachi made his prophecies about the last pope, and whether or not they are true, and how you count, and all this different stuff. But eschatology comes in big, and Revelation starts getting brooded about. I never read Revelation. I still don’t read Revelation. What’s your assessment of it, Dr. Arnn, and of its utility?

LA: Oh, it’s great. Yeah, you can read it. It’s Scripture, Hugh. Well first of all, it’s hard to read. And a great guide is what does it say? And so there’s all these images and all that stuff. But…and there are these plagues that come, and there’s a woman and a dragon and a baby, and so what does all that mean? Well, it’s worth it so sort of parse that out and see what it means. And it is the story, apocalypse or Revelation, apocalypse means uncovering. And so it is a revelation of the climax.

HH: It’s a very dangerous book, though, because it will, it has tempted people to spend their whole lives parsing it.

LA: Yeah, but that’s true. And by the way, it kind of has to be vague, right, because nothing like it had ever happened before.

HH: Right.

LA: Nor of course ever shall again, when it happens, we Christians believe. But there has to be a coming to the end of the world, and the doing of justice, and that is foretold in the words of Jesus in the Gospels. And so what’s going to be like when it all happens? And you know, if you want an easy way to sort of figure out the action of it, the Left Behind series, you know, is very literal, right? And they sort of make it into a kind of contemporary human drama in a way. And it takes it very literal. And so if you read that, and I have read it, then you can, it’s easier to know what’s going on at any given point. And it is a revelation of how things end.

HH: So do you read that at Hillsdale?

LA: Well, not in the core…

HH: Okay.

LA: But in the, of course, most students do read it.

HH: We do know that things will end. Every scientists, Richard Dawkins, everyone will agree with us, this world will end. We know that. So there’s no disagreement. It’s just about how and timing and when it up for grabs. And it could be much sooner as we speak. As we talk, an asteroid has just flown past the Earth at very close proximity, I might add, that no one knew about. And so there’s all these terrible things that could happen to us. But when you teach end times literature, are there other myths that Hillsdale will bring up and contrast with Revelation as to what the winding up is all about?

LA: Well, you know, in physics, of course, they teach…

HH: Sure.

LA: The universe is expanding, and it will lose touch with itself, I guess, eventually, the parts of it. And there’s a cooling going on. So they study that. And I don’t think anybody knows for sure that that’s what’s going to happen, that everything’s going to be cold and dead eventually. But there’s a possibility of that, so they study that. But about the myths and stuff, I mean, mostly, remember that in the logic of Christianity, there’s a reckoning to come that will involve everyone, living and dead. And we’re to imagine this world, in Christianity, as a temporary state, however long-lived it may be, that comes to a conclusion, and the separation of mankind into Heaven and Hell. And so what’s it going to be like when that time comes? And here we have a Biblical expression of that.

HH: Yeah, that’s what my friend, David Allen White, always says. Catholics are to think on four things every day – death, judgment, Heaven and Hell. And then, they’ll be in good shape. A word, Dr. Arnn, as we turn from Scripture to Herodotus, how ought people to prepare for next week?

LA: Well, the book by Herodotus is called The History, and it was the first book of history every written, so the name wasn’t taken, I like to say. And now you couldn’t use it after that. But it’s the story of the Greek and Persian wars, among the greatest wars of the classical world, and the great revelation or uncovering of the difference between the Greeks and what they called the barbarians. And of course, it’s an extremely exciting battle story, but also it is a parsing out of these many civilizations that come into conflict in this war between the Greeks and the Persians.

HH: Now often do you dip into it?

LA: Well, I live Herodotus, so I’ve read it, you know, extensively, and you know, Thucydides, too. And I, sometimes, I think I like Herodotus a little better, so I have read it often.

HH: And do the students take to it?

LA: Yeah, especially the Greeky ones. And everybody reads it, or parts of it. But…and it’s, like Leo Paul de Alvarez at the University of Dallas wrote years ago a commentary on Herodotus, a paper I think he gave at the American Political Science Association. And Doug Jeffrey gave that to me years ago, my colleague here, a student of de Alvarez. And it’s just very insightful. And if you read that paper, you can, then you’re on to what’s going on in this thing. And it’s very good. I’ll try to tell you some of that.

HH: Dr. Larry Arnn of Hillsdale College, thank you. To get this podcast, go to www.hughforhillsdale.com. www.hillsdale.edu has all sorts of massive open online courses. And mostly, they’ve got the goods when it comes to wisdom. Do not miss these podcasts. Thank you very much, Dr. Arnn.

End of interview.

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